Living on the Danger Threshold


It’s a long story my girl, call me in the evening and we’ll talk then.

This is Havuzlu, a village in Artvin’s Yusufeli district. It is 22 kilometers away from the district center, and lies right on the banks of the Çoruh river with vineyards first and houses after. The district of Yusufeli has recently made the news with the construction of the colossal Yusufeli Dam. The effects of already existing dams on the settlements in this area have, however, been a matter of concern for much longer. Havuzlu is one of these settlements. It lives under the shadow of the Artvin Dam and Hydroelectric Power Plant (HEPP) project that started in 2011.

Village head (mukhtar) Ali Cellat picks up my phone call. Although I have spoken with many village heads in areas already impacted or to be impacted by dams in Artvin, I still am caught by surprise: Without so much as a moment’s pause, he starts unloading his story before I’ve even asked anything. He has a lot to say.

The story of Havuzlu dates back to 2010, before the Artvin Dam was built. A decade has gone by since then, but the urgency in Uncle Ali’s voice makes it sound like everything is happening today.

Doğuş Construction Co., which undertook the construction project, initially set up its construction site for the Artvin Dam in 2010 where the main body of the Yusufeli Dam is now located. Before a year had passed it carried the site to the Demirkent Village. The company was also searching for an appropriate location to store explosives for the dam, and within this capacity rented out the public land above the residential part of Havuzlu. Here it set up its explosives storage facility. At the same time, it started excavating for a tunnel near the village.

The Havuzlu Village is a settlement that is at risk of landslide. What does this mean? For Havuzlu, every intervention raises question marks about a potential landslide and triggers uncertainties. Villagers have been going to and fro between government offices and company representatives ever since this project began, in order to clear up uncertainties and communicate their wish to keep living in their village. Uncle Ali reaches back into the past:

We were actually worried that there would be a landslide after the dam started retaining water, but they went ahead to build a tunnel before the dam held water. Even the Erzurum highway wasn’t charted through here because it is marked as a landslide hazard zone. The company completed the tunnel in 2014. They would say “We’re building the tunnel as a precaution for the dam.” My position was, “Who will take precautions for the village?” We asked the state, they told us “Doğuş, the company, is responsible for a possible landslide and any other incidents for the next 49 years.

Yet the only response Uncle Ali gets out of every company representative he ever speaks to regarding taking precautions against a possible landslide in Havuzlu is:

“That’s the government’s job.” Suddenly, he raises his voice as if he were back in that moment and hearing that response right now: “And I said, ‘Just as you protect the interests of the company, I have been elected by the people and so I defend their rights!’”

His voice reverberates, with the force of an entire crowd.

According to Uncle Ali, the company prepares its own site survey report before tunnel construction, and to prevent any interruptions to the project this report says the area is “fit for building.” Villagers are aware of the error here and object to the report immediately. On a visit to the dam site from Ankara at the time, the Department Head of the State Hydraulic Works (Devlet Su İşleri – DSI) comes to Havuzlu as well, both because it is located in a landslide hazard zone and because the inhabitants have had problems with the company. The villagers lay out the situation. As a result of this complaint, the DSI prepares another report. The result is: unfit. Uncle Ali explains how there is a section in the report saying, “The Company is responsible for taking the necessary precautions for the village, and the Office of the Governor is responsible for the Company’s actions.” What is expressed here as “necessary precautions” is, in fact, preventing any harm to life in the village. It blows my mind – on the other end of the phone line – to hear that the responsibility the company seems to shirk off is with regard to life and the preservation of life itself.

Uncle Ali eagerly moves on with the rest of the story:

On the 12th of August there was going to be a ceremony for water retention. So we had 18 days before the dam started retaining water. Everywhere they were broadcasting it, “Our inauguration is on such and such day.” There was somebody whose signature was under the official report, I called him. He told me, “Go camp out at the governor’s door.” I said, “How will the Governor fix this if Ankara can’t?” The Cerattepe protests were going on at the time. This worried the Governor, so he asked: “Are you too going to storm the construction site?” I tell him, “Take precautions to protect the village, then let them start retaining water.” He says, “Are you out of your mind, what would the Minister for Energy say? I can’t stop the dam; I don’t have that kind of luxury.”

The people of Havuzlu then give power of attorney to a lawyer and the court suit is filed. The court rules that the dam cannot start retaining water since the company hasn’t taken the necessary precautions to protect villagers from serious harm. Uncle Ali gets a phone call:

“I picked up and saw it was the company calling. I was right on the way to the village, so the line was kind of choppy. I said, ‘Mr. Director sir, I’ll call you back when I get home.’ I hear a mischievous tone in Uncle Ali’s voice as he continues: “He said to me, ‘We could have talked it out and solved it among ourselves, what need was there for this court case?’ I went to their doorstep so many times, they didn’t even let me in. What’s this ‘talking’ he’s on about?” The Artvin Dam can’t retain water for two months because of the court case, and so begins the company’s attempts to convince the villagers.

DAccording to the protocol signed between the state and the company, liability rests entirely with the company for decisions regarding the village for 49 years. In August 2015, representatives from Doğuş Co. hold a meeting with the villagers at the District Governor’s Office. Before this meeting, the residents of Havuzlu ask the Provincial Directorate of Public Works for an estimation of the worth of their agricultural fields and olive groves, and find out that they sit at about 10-12 thousand lira per dunam (decare) – since this is a landslide hazard zone. “During the negotiations, the company upped the price of expropriation to 45 thousand liras, but only on one condition,” says Uncle Ali, “they told us, ‘In a week’s time 32 of you must sell your property and commit to vacating within two months.’” Although the majority accept this deal, five or six people refuse to sell their land. Uncle Ali adds:

“Even now there are loads of people who haven’t sold their plots. There is one person left who actually lives in the village. But there are about 20 or 30 who don’t live in the village and haven’t sold their land. Now they want to sell, but they can’t. And most of those who have sold their places live in those houses that remain in the village – the houses belonging to their relatives who didn’t sell.”

The company is exercising eminent domain against places below an altitude of 840 meters. because the water in the dam increases the risk of landslides below that altitude. The villagers would, in fact, prefer the state to issue an order on the matter because they are worried about an imminent landslide. “Even if we live, we live under constant risk,” says Uncle Ali.

I ask him about the new settlement. “There was forest land bordering the village. We have changed its 2B status, and it will become the new site of settlement with 70 housing units. We’re doing it all with our own means.” Villages impacted by the Yusufeli Dam will have the right to a new site of settlement in Yusufeli. He mentions this, he’s livid about it. “We didn’t have that kind of right, we still don’t. So what are we supposed to do?” he asks.

Uncle Ali tells me how the best olive would grow in Havuzlu before the dam: “The company didn’t keep watering the olive groves it had bought. So the trees dried out. What are they doing now? You know how olive trees are incredibly resilient, now for the past two years, the company has been cutting them down and selling their wood as fuel. And they have the right to use the land for 49 years.” Slowly, the anger in his voice turns to sorrow.

I wonder where the villagers are staying while the village is being rebuilt: Where does Uncle Ali live? Some of the people have gone to Eskişehir, 15-20 households are living in rentals in Yusufeli. He, himself, has arranged a room in the village school with the permission of the Ministry of National Education. I ask him: “Uncle Ali, is there nobody in the village except you?” There are six families that have stayed as permanent residents, all above the altitude of 840 meters. 840 meters is the limit, the danger threshold. He lives at an altitude of 600-something meters. He laughs.

He says he’s been village head since 2004, but this is the first time he feels so tired: “Slowly it will get somewhere, we’re trying to pull things together, we’ll keep on trying.” He’s tired, but also keen. We’ve already been on the phone for 40 minutes. It’s like he doesn’t want the conversation to be over.

“I’ve blabbed on about it, but what can I do? You know what, my girl? It feels better the more one talks about it.”

[1] Water retention at the Artvin Dam and HEPP was scheduled to commence on August 12, 2015. According to the Ministry of Forestry and Water Management, however, retention was instead initiated on October 23, 2015

[2] 2B arazi, Türki2B land signifies deforested land owned by the treasury in Turkey.