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Turkey Opens Gates on Water Controversy


ISTANBUL, Turkey — Shrugging off Arab anger downstream, Turkey opened the sluice gate of one of the world's biggest irrigation projects on Wednesday as it continued to pursue an ambitious goal of doubling its agricultural wealth.

A huge spout of water flooded into a canal after President Suleyman Demirel pushed a button to release the first water from twin tunnels, watched by most of the Turkish government and 1,700 guests on the fertile but sunbaked Harran plain.

The $32-billion Southeast Anatolia Project is part of a Turkish plan to eventually siphon off more than a third of the Euphrates River, whose waters originate in Turkey and flow through what are now Syria and Iraq.

"We look at our future with security, thanks to this emerald water," Prime Minister Tansu Ciller told the crowds, who were regaled by Ottoman marching bands and songs by Turkey's most famous Kurdish singer.

"We have a debt of honor to this troubled region and have honored it," Demirel said. The huge area served by the project is mainly populated by minority Kurds, and the government hopes the project will create 2 million jobs, thereby reducing support in the region for rebel guerrillas of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

But Deputy Prime Minister Murat Karayalcin warned that "outside forces" had long attempted to stop the project with PKK terrorism--a clear reference to Syria, where the PKK leadership is based. The PKK revolt, in which 13,000 people have been killed, started 10 years ago just after work began on the great Ataturk Dam north of the Syrian border.

"I think there is a direct link between Syria's concerns about water and the PKK," said Philip Robins, head of the Middle East Program at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs. "The Syrians have shown repeatedly that they are ready to turn up the pressure."

Northern Syrian towns already suffer from Turkish dams and irrigation projects on the Euphrates. Turkey plans to siphon off at least 430 cubic yards per second through the project, more than a third of the Euphrates' average flow of 1,180-1,310 cubic yards per second.

Ultimately the river's flow may be halved. Turkey says it will give Syria the other half but refuses to guarantee that in writing.

The Euphrates flows on to the Persian Gulf through Iraq, which is also affected. Other Arab states, such as Jordan and Egypt, that are downstream of major rivers are unhappy about what they see as Turkey's cavalier disregard for the interests of countries sharing the same waters.

The ultimate goal of the 30-year-old project is 4 million irrigated acres, 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power stations. Official projections show Turkey's farm production doubling and its generating capacity being increased by one-third.

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