ILISU, TURKEY -- Mahmut Dundar raised a remote control toward a flat-screen monitor suspended from the ceiling of his office beside the Tigris River in southeast Turkey.
"These are live," he said, as he toggled between images of men and machines swarming over a dozen different building sites of the Ilisu Dam project.
The feed goes to the prime minister's office in Ankara, Mr. Dundar, general manager of the project, said last week. "The prime minister can watch every point of construction 24 hours a day, minute by minute, so he is informed of our progress at all times. He has set the target for completion for 2014, and we mean to make that date."
About 1,450 workers are laboring around the clock to complete the Ilisu Dam, one of the most controversial public works projects in recent history, by the middle of next year. That would be exactly five years after European lenders pulled out of the €1.1 billion, or $1.5 billion, project in July 2009, citing concerns about environmental impact, resettlement policies and the destruction of cultural treasures. Undeterred, Ankara quickly raised domestic financing and resumed work in 2010.
"We have now completed 53 percent of the project, and we will complete the rest on time," said Mr. Dundar, who is also regional director of the state hydraulic works. "We have no funding problems whatsoever, we work day and night, and all relevant agencies are in constant coordination."
On the construction site, about 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, from the Syrian border and 70 kilometers from Iraq, the roar of machinery drowned out the rushing waters of the Tigris, which has been diverted from its natural bed to flow through three diversion tunnels and emerge roiling and foaming into a new concrete basin.
The surrounding mountain ridges bristled with military sentry posts and surveillance equipment guarding the construction site against the Kurdish rebels roaming the area.
Trucks and earth movers hauled loads of limestone, basalt and clay onto the rising body of the dam, which is to attain a height of 141 meters, or 460 feet, when complete. The crest of the dam will be 2.3 kilometers long, with a volume of 24 million cubic meters of earth and rock.
One-third of that is done, Mr. Dundar said, with the rest scheduled to be finished within the year. "Meanwhile, construction of the spillway and the power plant are going ahead according to plan," he added.
If the project stays on track, the Ilisu Dam will begin to impound water next year. Filling the reservoir could take anywhere from 5 to 11 months, Mr. Dundar said, depending on the season in which it is begun. "We think the reservoir will be filled in 2015," he added.
The project appeared to hit a snag last month when Turkey's highest administrative court ruled that a decree issued by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year to accelerate work on the dam was in part null and void.
The court declared invalid that part of the decree that declared all infrastructure projects connected to the dam to be exempt from environmental impact assessment requirements on the grounds that plans for the dam were drawn up before the relevant law came into effect in 1993. Opponents of the project were jubilant and staged a rally in Ankara, calling for the Ilisu construction site to be shut down.
Emre Baturay Altinok, the lawyer who lodged the complaint on behalf of environmentalists, said by telephone from Ankara this month: "It is unlawful to continue work on the project without environmental impact assessments. The construction site must be closed and sealed."
Mr. Dundar disagreed with that interpretation of the ruling, which he said would not impede work on the dam.
"The ruling does not even remotely have anything to do with stopping the project," he said. "It is merely about applying the environmental impact assessment regulations, which we are now doing anyway."
The state hydraulic works authority has lodged an objection to the ruling, asking for clarification of certain terms, he said. "But in any case," he added, "the final judgment will definitely not stop the project."
Mr. Altinok, the lawyer, said he was not surprised that construction was continuing six weeks after the court ruling. "That is the way of justice in Turkey," he said. "We are accustomed to court rulings against large projects not being implemented."
The Ilisu project has long inflamed passions in Turkey and beyond. Concerns about its environmental, cultural and social impact forced companies and financial backers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland to pull out of the project under pressure from public campaigns in 2009.
With a capacity of 11 billion cubic meters of water, the Ilisu reservoir will flood more than 30,000 hectares of land, or 74,000 acres, submerging parts of the historical town of Hasankeyf upstream, as well as uncharted archaeological sites along the Tigris. The waters will displace 199 settlements, affecting 55,000 people, according to a report drawn up in 2008 by international experts acting on behalf of European export-credit agencies.
Scientists are at work in Hasankeyf to prepare for the removal of cultural monuments to a safe location across the Tigris and to fortify higher parts of the ancient town that will not be submerged, Mr. Dundar said.
A new town on a mountainside across the river from Hasankeyf is nearing completion and should be ready for resettlement of the town's population before the water begins to rise.
Resettlement has been completed in the village of Ilisu near the dam site, where villagers were moved to a new settlement at the end of 2010.
Villagers interviewed in Ilisu this month were unenthusiastic about their new homes, despite the running water in modern kitchens and bathrooms and communal amenities such as a playground and a meeting room.
"It was better in our old village," a woman who gave her name as Zekine said. "Our fields and orchards were there. They are all gone now."
Many villagers complained about the loss of their farmland. "Most people here work on the dam construction site now, but once that wraps up, there will be no place to work," said Mehmet, a young man who did not give his family name. "I preferred our old village, because we had our orchards and our vines and could always make a living if we worked hard."
"We were farmers, now we are workers," said Osman Demir, from the neighboring village of Karabayir, whose agricultural land was nationalized to build the new village of Ilisu.
Like most settlements affected by the dam, his village has not applied for resettlement by the state.
Besides Ilisu and Hasankeyf, only one other village has signed up for resettlement, Mr. Dundar confirmed. "It is up to the free will and democratic wishes of the villagers," he said. "We want to build modern settlements for them. But we can only do it for those who want it."
This is what opponents of the dam have feared all along, said Arif Arslan, president of the Friends of Hasankeyf Association in Batman, who has been monitoring the Ilisu project for 20 years.
"It will be just like when the Batman dam was built and 20,000 villagers were displaced" in the 1990s, Mr. Arslan said in a recent interview. "Villagers will move to the city with their cash compensations, the money will run out, and they will end up leading miserable lives in the slums."
Mr. Arslan is skeptical that the Ilisu project will contribute to the welfare and development of the region, among the poorest in Turkey. "We have seen 18 dams built in this region already," he said. "Do you see a rise in the standard of living anywhere around here?"
In Ilisu, Mr. Dundar said that "every project has unwanted side effects." Yet the Ilisu Dam is essential to the development of the country and the welfare of its people, he argued. "Our country needs energy, and we are trying to meet that need," he said.
Ilisu's 1,200-megawatt hydroelectric power plant is designed to produce nearly 4 billion kilowatt hours of energy per year, worth an annual $400 million, according to project managers.
"Our country's weakest spot is its dependency on energy imports," Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek said at the opening of Ilisu's diversion tunnels last year. To partly overcome that dependency, he added, "This jumbo project is of the utmost strategic and economic importance to our country."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.