Have Turkey DAMned Iraq?

The Tigris River originates in rural eastern Turkey and flows into Iraq, ending in the Persian Gulf. The River is an important water source for the Turkish people as well as creating a fertile marshland in southern Iraq, home to thousands of people. Construction of the Ilisu dam by the Turkish government threatens to disrupt the flow of the Tigris and escalate the political tension between the two countries. The Ilisu dam will provide water and electricity for the Turkish people. A new village (for relocation) will be built creating job opportunities for the local people and improved irrigation for farming. This dam is part of Turkey’s plan to become energy independent as it currently must buy electricity from Russia.

Opposition to the dam states that many rural villages will be flooded(1), including 12,000-year-old Hasankeyf; forcing thousands to relocate. The Iraqi marshlands fed by the Tigris are also at risk. Drops in water supply threaten to cause droughts, and create thousands of water refugees across already water short Iraq.

Iraq and Turkey already have a history of political tension and the construction of the Ilisu dam has only increased it. The dam has been the subject of a terrorist attack from the PKK, a Kurdish group based on the Turkey – Iraq border. Claims have also been made that there are political reasons behind the dam with Turkey aiming to gain control of the water supply over the PKK and Iraq(2). Extreme pressure has also been placed on all engineers involved in the project (e.g. Balfour Beatty PLC), along with multiple withdrawals from banks funding the project adding another ethical dimension to the issue.



The morality of the project according to virtue ethics is based entirely on the reasons, and therefore the individual’s character, for building the dam. It could be argued that the Turkish government is trying to provide for its people, which would be considered as a virtuous aim. However, it has also been suggested that the aim of the dam is to create political leverage over Iraq, with the constant threat of Turkey controlling their water supply; a rather unvirtuous aim. For this example, determining the reasons behind the dam would clearly identify the character of the individual and provide a good evaluation of the morality of the action.



As part of the dam’s construction the historical town of Hasankeyf will be flooded; which is a national conservation area and qualifies to be a UNESCO world heritage site if an application was submitted(3). By considering Kant’s theory, which states that actions are judged to be right or wrong based on whether they fulfil the duty of the acting party, the government has an obligation to provide for its citizens and therefore the building of the dam is the moral duty of the Turkish government. Flooding of the town is not breaking any legal rulings; however, it could be morally wrong by deontological theory- an action is right or wrong based on moral rules, irrespective of the consequences – due to it being a national conservation area. If it was made a world heritage site then it would be protected by law, and flooding of it would be immoral.

Construction of the dam and the nearby New Hasankeyf has created many temporary and permanent jobs in an area with low employment. Overall, the Turkish government are acting morally right by Kant’s theory as there are no strong rules prohibiting their actions, but they are obliged to provide for the citizens.




The positive outcomes from the dam include employment opportunities, water storage for Turkey, independent electricity supply, new homes and new opportunities (such as potential for tourism(1)). However, there are concerns with the dam, such as the agricultural loss in Iraq, water refugees, and a loss of culture (Hasankeyf (4)). Utilitarianism, which says that an action is good so long as the benefits are to the greatest number of people, can be used to judge the morality of these points. On a worldwide scale, the project seems morally wrong, as judged by utilitarianism; since it negatively impacts on another nation (Iraq), and on the Mesopotamian Marshes – a world heritage site(5). These effects can be considered to be negative to anyone outside of Turkey, and therefore this project is morally wrong from a utilitarian point of view.



From a national context, the Turkish government has a duty of care to its citizens as a collective, and prioritising this dependant relationship over the non-existent relationship with Iraqi citizens, means allowing the dam into operation can arguably be justified. However, when framing the situation in a global context, diplomatic relations with Iraq, the UN and other stakeholders are arguably more important for future prosperity of the country than short-term benefits for Turkey’s people; this is especially significant given the recent turbulent political activity in Turkey. This is synonymous with care ethics; it emphasises the connectedness of people, and specifies that vulnerability and dependence play an important role in moral judgements. (6) Unfortunately, viewpoints sought using this theory are inherently not clear-cut, and can only be used as supplementary to arguments made using the three main ethical branches.

Turkey has claimed to be building this dam to provide power and water for their citizens however the following must be asked;

Should providing for your citizens be your number one priority?

Does this allow you to destroy history for a temporary gain?

Is there an ulterior motive?

Group 62: Sam Bigden, Scott Robinson, James Byrne, Adam Karakoc













31 thoughts on “Have Turkey DAMned Iraq?

  1. Seems like a complicated issue, not sure who is right but if turkey can still get their power from Russia then maybe they are causing an issue where there doesn’t need to be one


    1. But with tension increasing between Turkey and Russia it would be a key interest of the Turkish government to be energy dependent. Imagine losing power to a large portion of your country because you disagreed with something Putin did… Wouldn’t look very good and it doesn’t feel nice being in another’s pocket neither


  2. Interesting article. Given that, as the article says, the effects of the dam will be negative for anywhere outside of Turkey, and considering the recent increase in nationalism in Turkish politics, I doubt Turkey will care about the effects of the dam in other countries. Turkey is already on bad terms with Iraq and Syria over the damming of rivers, so there’ll be no love lost over the Ilisu dam anyway.


  3. Certainly seems to be a provocative act from Turkey towards Iraq and the peoples of the border region. In the near future I believe the Kurdish right to self determination (in the form of a Kurdish nation) will become a global issue and Turkey could exert significant leverage over the Kurds with a project like this. Given previous military hostility to the Kurds this well be another of the ulterior motives….


  4. A very complicated issue. The negative consequences on neighbouring countries are concerning especially with the political tensions in that region. Furthermore the loss of what would be considered a UNESCO heritage site is a shame. However, the Turkish government could claim that they are just fulfilling their obligation to its people by making their lives better. A tricky situation for certain.


  5. I don’t believe a country should act purely based on self interest, Turkey has a moral duty to consider its neighbours. It will surely lead to further conflict and instability if Turkey’s actions have a detrimental effect on the Kurds and Iraq.


  6. It’s a tough one! The article successfully highlights that there are plenty of pros and cons regarding the construction of the Ilisu dam. From Turkeys point of view the positive aspects of dam construction seem to outweigh the negatives with regards to the employment opportunities, water storage, and independent electricity supply. On the other hand, from an ‘outsiders’ point of view, the introduction of the Ilisu dam appears to be associated with mainly negative issues from a moral, ethical, and practical point of view. It is difficult to determine whether the positive or negative aspects dominate, however when considering the history of political tension between Iraq and Turkey it sounds like the Ilisu dam will be causing more trouble than it’s worth!


  7. I think the only real way we can judge the morality of actions is through utilitarianism. Both Kant’s theory and virtue ethics are too narrowly focussed on the decision maker and don’t take into account the wider impact. No matter the intention or duty of the acting party, once they become aware of the huge negative impact their actions will have on others the action can no longer be taken ethically. I think the fact that Turkey are aware of the negative impacts the Ilusu Dam will have makes building it unethical. They should find alternative ways to uphold their duty and meet their aims which have less negative impacts for others.


  8. I think the benefits outweigh the cons of this project. Flooding of villages has occurred many a time over the years, but many people have benefited from the outcome. Turkey wanting to be more independent in terms of its energy supply is understandable in case of conflict with Russia in the future that could compromise their energy supply. It is sad that there are oppositions to the project, however steps do need to be taken to ensure the security of Turkey’s future.


  9. Have alternative scenarios been considered which can salvage both world heritage sites in Turkey and Iraq? Could there be a possibility of diverting and halving the flow? This would mean the dam being built in a slightly different place saving the historic village whilst maintaining the flow through to the marshes. River courses have been altered before. Have UNESCO been considered and consulted for their input and advice? The topic is a very valid moral question – being seen to do the ‘right’ thing while having underlying political interests which can’t be proved but may escalate a situation beyond its original intentions.


  10. I think I have moral questions to ask on the topic. If a river flows between 2 countries, who can legally own the water if anyone? And do the needs of the many out way the needs of the few and if so, who are the many and who are the few?


  11. A very controversial subject with many interesting points raised. The need for Turkey to supply water etc. for its people is important. But, controlling river flow to another needy country will obviously raise concerns. The flooding of villages happens in many countries and, brings with it many varieties objections.

    Can the river be diverted above the proposed dam area allowing its continued flow south?


  12. As emerging nations want to become energy dependent this question will be asked over and over again. The planet and our current way of life can’t be sustained for every single country on the planet.

    Something must change! A complete revamp of the way we do politics and economics or the whole planet. Compromise can’t keep us going forever..


  13. It’s an incredibly impactive project in every sense of the word but, predominantly unreported. The main issue of Syria and the recent political turmoil in Turkey currently in regards to the dramatic change in their political system has somewhat over-shadowed issues such as these. I think those projects will continue to progress without significant opposition due to the mass amount of censorship occurring in Turkey currently. It’s a dangerous time for that region of the word, but I’m most worried for the evolution of an ‘anti-western’ Turkey that will as a result further detiorate the Middle East. I would say ‘Turkey haven’t damned Iraq, YET’


  14. An interesting read. There are rumours that Britain will stop giving away it’s pledged 0.7% gross national income on foreign aid. Both this situation and the one this article discusses seem to show that nations are looking to become more self sufficient, at the expense of others. Whether this is sustainable in the long run remains to be seen.


  15. There are treaties which have been drawn up diplomatically and signed between countries over many years related to international water resources. The UN have overseen such treaties and the protection and preservation of water resources has been key in negotiations. Nations have valued these agreements because they make international relations over water more stable and predictable. The river that flows through the most nations is the Danube, which travels within the territory of 18 nations. The Turkish government is not interested in negotiations and agreements even with its own people (the kurds). A government operating from a non democratic viewpoint are unlikely to be swayed by any argument other than their own self interests. The viewpoints of other nations or it’s own people are of no interest to the Turkish government they prefer to block social media and jail their journalists.


  16. I have to admit, this is not something that I have read much about. I have to agree with Patricia when she asks who owns the water if a river flows between two countries.


  17. A damned good read. Only time will tell the outcome, although it seems as though Turkey are causing unnecessary tension in an already volatile part of the world. It would be a shame to lose a UNESCO heritage site, but if it means Turkey becomes less reliant on higher powers then maybe it is a price they have to pay…


  18. from conservation point of view, the main issue for me seems to be the trade off between moving towards sustainable and renewable energy sources and protection of natural marsh habitats.


  19. This is an excellent analysis acknowledging the difficulty, objectively and sensitively and trying to find the best way forward. The question itself is of great importance arising in many areas of the world. The Kaveri river in Tamil Nadu is just such an example;where once this was an active flowing waterway feeding many villages in the Southern states now it’s just a dry verge at least a mile across and going for miles. Why? Because the states further north have siphened off the water for their more utilitarian use. Here, there isn’t even a political issue; just greed.
    The moral imbalance that occurs worldwide with regards to land and more particularly water, is a disgrace to mankind and largely mankind’s doing. Turkey under the current regime is a law unto itself and cannot be trusted. However, once again the engineer/scientist/doctor is the middle man/woman who is trying to bring some objectivity and resources to where they are most needed, find themselves caught in the middle of political upheaval and a world that is at war with itself.


  20. Very sensitive subject not just between Turkey and Iraq but for the whole region.
    And it goes back to 1980s when Turkey planned to re-generate the south eastern part of the country which has borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. The project was named Southeastern Anatolian Project with its Turkish acronym GAP; more info at http://www.gap.gov.tr/en
    It still is the biggest project ever taken by the country; construction of 22 dams, 19 hydraulic power plants (HPP) and involves nearly 2 million hectares of area.
    This latest dam is part of this grand project and it did upset Syria as well as Iraq; caused political and economic problems in the region.
    At first Syria was not happy to lose water resources and retaliated by supporting the Kurdish group PKK whom fighting against the Turkish state for independence for decades; this is a simple example of the problems caused by this project.
    Turkish and Iraqi relations got to its lowest point when Turkey let the American plains to take off from Adana to bomb Saddam’s Iraq at the 1st Golf war in 1990. Turkey lost its biggest international trade partner; since then relations between two countries never recovered.
    And this latest dam is not going to improve the situation.
    When it comes to loosing historical heritage sites; that is always been a nice problem to have for Turkey; where ever they dig always come up some sort of historical findings; Anatolia had been one of the oldest cultural settlements in the world. I agree that if possible they should not loose these unreplaceable heritage sites.


  21. Quite an interesting article – I don’t agree with Turkey’s actions and I believe they have an ulterior motive for the construction of the dam. They should consider the implications for their already strained relationship with Iraq.


  22. As you’ve highlighted, the situation seems extremely difficult and sensitive. Although they’re clear benefits for Turkey, all I can really see are the negative impact it will have on relations with others.


  23. Political move or not, (I’d like to hope not,,,) and all details aside, I believe that morally it is wrong to gain from hurting others. My wise father always said that we would soon be having wars over water.


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