What’s the harm in HEPPs?


What do people have against hydroelectric power plants (HEPPs)? This is the first question people who don’t live in areas overrun by hydropower facilities but have an ear out for anti-HEPP demonstrations understandably ask. This simple and straightforward question, however, does not always have an equally simple answer – for the damages caused by HEPPs may be manifold, and this spectrum varies from region to region and power plant to power plant. For instance, large-scale hydropower plants, or hydroelectric dams, can flood residential areas and fertile agricultural land since they retain water. In turning rivers into stagnant lakes, these structures may change the regional climate, which then affects crop yield. Things are different when it comes to small, run-of-river hydropower plants that don’t need to retain water and therefore don’t have large reservoirs. Largely responsible for the current HEPP over-inflation across the country, this technology converts water into energy by “bypassing” rivers into tunnels and then letting them flow downhill via a penstock or pipe from a higher altitude. Especially when built consecutively, this circuit completely dries out river basins during certain seasons, and in cases where river water is used for irrigation, run-of-river hydroelectric plants pose a serious threat to agriculture despite being small in scale. Environmental impact assessments are conducted for individual projects without considering cumulative impacts on the whole basin. In this way it becomes possible to cram dozens of HEPPs into a small valley. In some cases, to increase the power plant’s productivity, a stream is diverted from its basin and merged with another stream in a different basin.

Moreover, HEPPs also have a series of negative impacts during their construction. Built on steep hillsides and rugged landscapes, these structures render rural settlements uninhabitable for long periods, with dust, dirt, mud, and explosions ruining villagers’ daily life. To cut costs, construction and energy companies dump their excavated material and construction waste in rural areas – usually deep into valleys – despite this being illegal.

The physical impacts of HEPPs don’t end with the completion of projects either. Since the construction of these power plants is carried out haphazardly without any centralized planning, their connection to the power grid is the responsibility of each individual company. As a result, rural areas face an over-inflation of high-voltage power lines in tandem with an over-inflation of hydroelectric power plants. Whether involving a storage dam or run-of-river type pipelines, most hydropower facilities end up presenting arduous obstacles for human and animal populations alike in the landscapes they are built on, taking a toll on both wildlife and rural accessibility. Furthermore, Furthermore, since rivers can no longer carry alluvial sediment to deposit in estuaries because of HEPP interference, the sea moves inland and encroaches into rivers, destroying coastlines (shores).

In addition to these economic and physical impacts, HEPPs have intangible social and cultural impacts as well. They irrevocably alter rural areas, places people know as their hometowns, rendering them unrecognizable. To see bulldozers going into bushland, into a secluded valley, and ravaging it for months has a profound impact on locals andon people who know the site as their ancestral land. In rural areas, the river, valley, and forest next to the village aren’t the equivalent of the neighborhood in an urban setting – they are part of the home itself. Structures constructed on rural land without the consent of its populace are an assault on rural memory. This is as dire a threat, if not more, for the demographic who migrated away a couple of generations ago but continue to maintain a bond with their village, as it is for villagers still inhabiting the area. Not only do HEPPs precipitate the disintegration of rural life in the valleys they move into, but they also disrupt expat-homeland relations that are vital for most rural areas. Urban ex-pats who continue to visit their villages, if only a couple of times a year, find themselves alienated from their rural homeland. It is precisely for this reason that in anti-HEPP protests we encounter ex-pats with ties to the area as active participants alongside local villagers.   

Where did all these HEPPs come from?

For the past decade, people all over Turkey and almost everyone in the Eastern Black Sea region, in particular, have been asking this question. We live in a period marked by an unprecedented proliferation of hydroelectric power plants (HEPPs), as almost every single valley and river or stream of any size is filled to the brim with these structures. Turkey’s capacity to generate energy from its rivers has doubled since the early 2000s and is expected to triple by 2023.

The most important factor behind this rapid proliferation of hydroelectric power plants, which may be termed a veritable “hydropower rush,” is privatization. The push towards privatizing the energy sector is not at all new. Indeed, we should remember that energy was one of the very first sectors that were attempted to be privatized, an attempt It took until the latter half of the 2000s under a single-party government for the legislation to be put into action, supported via directives and a series of incentives, making the sector “secure for investors.”

Privatization is a contested move in every sector. The question is: which areas should be left to private entrepreneurs, and in which areas should public interest prevail? Though the proponents of privatization appear to have the upper hand for the time being, the dispute is far from over. It is unlikely to imagine this impasse will be solved over hydroelectric power plants, but we must bring the unexpected spatial consequences created by privatizing energy production into the discussion. What many do not know is that the privatization of the energy sector is not limited to the state handing over the provision of a service to the private sector. In practice, privatizing energy production also means privatizing the management and planning of entire rural landscapes. We don’t see the state go about privatizing by saying, “Here are the power plants we need and have planned for, who’s up for building them?” Instead, the approach is, “Here’s a map of Turkey, go ahead and build whatever you want, wherever you want.” By the end of this process we may practically consider “spatial privatization,” which is bolstered by a combination of purchase guarantees, incentives, and convenient loan options, not only do HEPP numbers rise exponentially, but it also becomes possible to turn entire streams and rivers into grounds for infrastructure projects with consecutive HEPP constructions. 

Another characteristic feature of the “hydropower rush” period has been the rapid modification of the country’s hydropower map in the last decade. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the golden age of dams, when the state was responsible for energy production, a great majority of the hydroelectric structures built were in Eastern and South-Eastern Anatolia, and predominantly in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins. The megaprojects in these regions required state support and expertise. Megaprojects such the Atatürk, Keban and Karakaya dams were completed guided by the period’s principles of public service and development (much as these principles themselves are open to dispute). The privatization of the sector brought about a massive change in both the HEPP structures and the the geography suitable for HEPPs in Turkey. Companies set their sights on river basins that remained mostly untouched by the state. The Black Sea region in particular became overrun with small and medium-scale HEPPs. The first encounter the area had with HEPPs was therefore through private companies and their practices. The anti-HEPP movement took root and blossomed in such an environment and geographical setting.

It may be argued that HEPPs produce renewable energy as they do not consume an energy source; yet, they damage the environment both in their building and after, destroy valleys, affect water quality and lead to rural disintegration.

In response to this kind of criticism, one could of course argue that “HEPPs are built wherever there is water.” Yet those who make this seemingly objective remark forget that areas packed with HEPPs are places that live and breathe with their inhabitants, animals, and nature. Another oft-forgotten issue is that HEPPs, like other energy investments, are unequally distributed across the country’s terrain and population. Energy justice allows us to give expression precisely to this inequality.