A new exhibit at Istanbul’s avant-garde SALT Galata gallery, Graft, throws open the archive of material about Turkey’s first major hydroelectric projects in the 1930s. The display critically analyzes the motives behind these early endeavors — and the effects of the extensive hydroelectric industry they spawned in Turkey.
The “Marmara Basin” was an irrigation reservoir on a model farm in Ankara constructed by Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. It refers to the Marmara Sea, which lies south of Istanbul. The farm featured another reservoir named after the Black Sea.
Based on a Turkish architect’s PhD dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Graft traces the construction and administration of dams during Turkey’s Republican Period, the first two decades after the founding of the republic in 1923.
In an effort to generate more energy and emulate more industrialized nations, many of Turkey’s river basins and lakes were turned into dams in the 1930s, especially in the dry, barren land around the new capital city of Ankara.
Aslıhan Demirtaş, the architect behind the SALT exhibit, locates these developments in a broader historical context: humankind’s ongoing quest to shape nature to its purposes.
“As well as being a necessity in the post-industrial world, it was also a reflection of man’s desire to dominate nature,” she told reporters at the exhibit’s recent opening, according to the Hürriyet Daily News.
Another view of the Çubuk Dam, showing the height of its walls.
Demirtaş sees these projects as efforts to “graft” a modern, expansion-focused infrastructure onto the rural Anatolian plain of old — hence the exhibit’s name.
“These modern projects of a ‘modern’ geography are cultivars, propagated by grafting an Ottoman scion onto an Anatolian root: Istanbul’s waterfront geography, onto Ankara’s barren land,” reads the description of the exhibit on SALT’s website.
The website further explains how these early projects of the 1930s became the prototypes for the 700 hydroelectric dams all over modern Turkey:
The singular Directorate of Public Works of the 1930s, which propagated the cultivars of Ankara, proliferated into a complex machine of multiple ministries and government organizations to develop regional development plans through the 1950s. As a result, the cultivar of Ankara was re-grafted all over the country. Multiplied in a massive scale on the riverbeds of Anatolia and Eastern Thrace, the cultivars, consequently, transformed and mutated into a wild species of aggressive and invasive nature.
Each of Turkey’s current 26 regions, which were delineated after the 1950s, was located around a corresponding river basin so that each would have a steady supply of energy and irrigation water.
The exhibit also includes two 1/50,000 size models of Turkey’s major dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
“This is to concretize, at least partly, the physical aspect of Turkey’s modernization process,” Demirtaş told the Hürriyet Daily News.
That modernization process has come a long way since the early, hopeful days of the Republic. Turkey’s dams are now notorious for hogging water supplies and degrading their surrounding environments.
The hydroelectric dams on the Tigris and Euphrates are now violating the human rights of communities downstream of Turkey, according to a report by the United Nations last year. They are the biggest source of contention between Turkey and Iraq. And a planned hydroelectric project in northeastern Turkey could similarly poison relations with another neighbor, Georgia.
Turkey’s hydroelectric industry is long overdue for internal inspection and reform. This exhibit about its origins is an excellent place for the country to start.
Read more about hydroelectric dams in Turkey:
Hydroelectric Dam In Turkey May Cause Environmental Catastrophe In Georgia
Turkish Water Projects Stirring Resentment Around The Region
Turkey’s Dams Are Violating Human Rights, UN Report Says
Images via SALTonline