Hydroelectricity is the cornerstone of Turkey’s goal to boost renewable energy supply, but building thousands of dams comes at an environmental cost. Retired imam Kazım Delal avoids visits to his beloved Küçükcayır, the village where he grew up and that his family has called home for five generations. Located in the lush Salarha Valley in the emerald-green mountains of the eastern Black Sea, Küçükcayır is famous for its sweet honey made from wild roses and fresh trout that swim in its ice-cold streams. It is also the construction site of a hydroelectric power station project; one of almost 1000 licensed in Turkey and at various stages of completion, according to the Energy Market Regulatory Authority (EPDK). Another thousand hydro-power projects are planned. “It feels like a stab in the heart when I see Küçükcayır now,” Delal said. “For almost 70 years, I watched that water flow. There was nowhere like it in the world. Now they’ve destroyed the forest and turned it into hell.” Delal, 66, is embroiled in a three-year lawsuit to block Redaş Elektrik, owned by Madrid-based builder Essentium Group, from completing the plant in Küçükcayır. His complaint alleges that the project harms the environment, including sources of drinking water for the nearby town of Rize, his lawyer, Remzi Kazmaz, said. Essentium Enerji, the subsidiary in Istanbul, did not respond to email or phone calls. Construction on the plant on the Paşaçur Stream has been halted pending a final verdict, Kazmaz said.

HUNDREDS OF SMALL DAMS: Delal’s lawsuit is one of an estimated 90 brought by villagers against similar run-off river hydropower projects in northern Turkey, Kazmaz said. Locals fear the plants will siphon off water used to irrigate farms and supply households. With 250 hydropower projects at various stages of completion, the predominantly rural Black Sea region has the most in Turkey, according to the state Investment Support and Promotion Agency. Another 110 small hydro projects are under way in eastern Turkey, 104 in the Mediterranean, 44 in central Turkey, 26 in the south-east, 20 off the western Aegean coast and 16 in north-western Turkey, the agency said. The project’s total capacity will be 15,000 MW once they are all built.

Since 2010, Turkey has pursued small hydro plants because of its abundance of river and stream systems. Geology has blessed Turkey with 27 watersheds, more than in all of Europe, according to Istanbul-based conservation group Doğa Derneği. Since these projects reroute the river flow through pipes and tunnels, often underground, they do not require major dam reservoirs and are therefore seen as having a more limited environmental impact than the large-scale projects Turkey has historically pursued.

ACTIVE DAM-BUILDING: Turkey is “one of the world’s most active dam-building countries,” said International Rivers, a California-based non-governmental organisation. The country has 635 large dams and 24 more in the works, it said. Hydroelectric potential in Turkey is nearly 1% of the world’s total potential, according to government figures. Among the headline projects are a €500m hydroelectric power plant in southeast Turkey being built by Norway’s Statkraft, Europe’s biggest producer of renewable energy. The Çetin plant will have installed capacity of 517 MW when completed in 2015. Statkraft is also building a 102-MW hydro plant and has already finished a 20-MW facility in Turkey. Since 2003, the government’s Privatisation Administration (ÖİB) has been charged with selling 83 hydroelectric plants and has sold 50 run-of-the-river plants. It plans to sell another 12 stations around the country in the first half of 2012, ÖİB’s deputy president, Ahmet Aksu, told the state Anatolia News Agency.

About a fifth of Turkish power production comes from hydroelectric sources, including large-scale dams, the US Energy Information Agency said. The country uses 43% of its technically and economically viable hydro potential and wants to lift that to 100% by 2023 as it seeks to boost clean energy and reduce its dependence on costly fossil fuel imports. Despite disadvantages including massive primary capital costs and unreliable power supplies during dry weather, the Ministry of Energy target for hydro capacity over the next decade is as much as 35,000 MW. (Today total installed capacity from all sources is 50,000 MW.) ILISU DAM PROJECT: The heart of Turkish dam-building country lies in the basins of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the south-east. The $32bn South-eastern Anatolia Project (GAP), an irrigation and energy development plan, includes the construction of an additional 28 hydroelectric power plants with combined capacity of 6.2 GW. Among the most controversial of the GAP plans is the Ilısu Dam, a $1.5bn investment that will provide an annual 3800 GW, or 2% of the nation’s annual electricity needs. It will also submerge the ancient town of Hasankeyf, a city hewn from sandstone cliffs above the Tigris River that claims 10 millennia of history.

Conservationists say Ilısu will lay to waste to critical natural habitats, destroy more than 300 historic sites and cause the force evacuation of tens of thousands of people. Government officials say Turkey needs the mega-project if it is to become more self-reliant and sustain its rapid economic growth.

Questions over the environmental, social and cultural impact scared off financial backers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland in 2009, but Ankara quickly raised the financing domestically and has pressed ahead with construction on the dam and resettlement of the population. Although several NGOs and celebrities have mobilised to try to prevent the flooding of Hasankeyf, recent history does not bode well for the town’s fate. Turkey ignored an international outcry in 2000 and flooded the Roman city of Zeugma, and 10 years later, it buried the second-century settlement of Allianoi under 61m cu metres of water.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that GAP’s irrigation and damming projects aim primarily to improve the plight of impoverished Kurds who live in south-eastern Turkey and have suffered loss of life and land during decades of fighting between separatists and the Turkish army. “The Ilısu Dam won’t destroy Hasankeyf. Just the opposite, it will save it. It is the chance to benefit future generations,” Erdoğan said in late 2010.

Still, the negative publicity from protests by local and international activists against large dam schemes like Ilısu are one reason why the government has turned to the seemingly more sustainable small run-off hydropower projects, like at Küçükcayır. Private investors, many of them foreign, could spend as much as $22bn, according to the government’s investment agency, on these plants. Many are drawn in part because the projects are eligible for carbon trade, compensating for emissions made elsewhere, said Güven Eken, head of Doğa Derneği. But that is a false dichotomy, he said. “We are sacrificing nature to save the climate, but destroying streams and forests undermines a stable and healthy climate system,” Eken said. “The larger dam projects had severe negative effects, but only on one river’s course, making it a concentrated threat. The smaller hydropower project’s impact is much more expansive.”

In the haste to get so many small projects off the ground, environmental-impact assessments have been sloppy, Eken said. Ecosystems and several key indigenous species are under threat, especially in the Toros Mountains of the Mediterranean, he said. His group estimates that 185 of Turkey’s 305 specially-determined key biodiversity areas, will be hit. “The length of river systems in Turkey that will be converted to power plants or dams is about 10,000 km, leaving very little room for natural ecosystems,” according to a Doğa Derneği report. Construction of dams, as well as polluted streams and lakes, have contributed to more than half of Turkish fish and lamprey species landing on the so-called Red List, which ranks species as critical in terms of the risk of extinction, according to research by Germany’s Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History.

OWNERSHIP: Besides the damage to biodiversity, local activists like Delal worry private firms could also exploit water for profit, since the licenses to build the plants give effective ownership of water through a 50-year lease on the portion of the river upon which the station is built. “It’s not just the streams. Our wells are drying up because the plants draw off the water table,” Delal said. Others complain of the landscape being destroyed, including the felling of thousands of trees, in their surroundings by construction.

Poorly laid underground pipes have exploded under pressure, flooding farmland, newspapers reported. Energy Minister Taner Yıldız blamed environmental damage on shoddy engineering. Hydropower is an effort “to bring Turkey’s natural, environmentally friendly resources on-line,” Yıldız said in January 2012. “At times builders have operated crudely without regard for the environment. I don’t support them. We need to invest with respect for nature and the environment.”

For his part, Delal vows to continue his legal battle to stop the plant at Küçükcayır from ever opening. His lawyer, Kazmaz, is providing his legal services pro bono, but Delal was still forced to sell his cow to pay expert witness fees. “I would give everything for my land,” he said. “I don’t need money. I just want to go home.”