The long and dusty road to the Ataturk dam, focal point of the GAP (Southeastern Anatolia Project) winds across the lush plains surrounding the ancient town of Sanliurfa, down near the Syrian border at the bottom end of Turkey. Warm winds ruffle the endless vistas of green fields of high protein crops and cotton watered now by the huge irrigation system that fans out across the plain.

Yet the massive GAP irrigation and hydraulic energy production project was indeed nothing more than just a dream only a comparatively few decades ago. Thoughts on utilizing Turkey's water reserves more efficiently slowly began to emerge back in the mid 1950's, developed during the next twenty years with reports and projects until in 1977, projects were merged into one grand concept and given the title "Southeastern Anatolia Project".

The GAP project was first seen as thirteen different irrigation and water generated power projects involving dams and water- driven electricity plants utilizing the unlimited waters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers-which both have their sources in Turkey. Although the GAP project at first glance seems nothing more than just a massive feat of civil engineering -one of the world's biggest in fact- it is much, much more.

In line with project aims to develop the region, the "GAP Regional Development Organization" was set up in 1989 to help eliminate differences in development in the southeast and other richer regions of the country. This organization was later changed to an "administration" to supervise social development, improve living standards and promote economic growth. The Regional Development Administration now runs a number of socio-economic projects in nine provinces in the GAP project area.

Figures and reports on the GAP project might tell us that the Ataturk dam is the world's ninth largest hard-core dam feeding eight turbines in power plants hooked into the national grid, and many other vital facts. But many reports overlook other just as important facets of the project, including practical applications of the "sustainable development" concept rather than mere economic growth over the short to medium terms, and the development of the area as an "agro-related export base" -or as it was once said "GAP will be the bread basket of the Middle East".

Dreams that GAP will somehow become the promised land of the region still have some way to go before they become reality. So far 56% of capacity has been achieved, 17% is now being constructed, and the remainder is still on the drawing board. The price tag will be over thirty billion dollars, quite a lot of money when only 2.6 billion dollars has come from foreign credit, loans and build-operate-transfer (BOT) deals.

Social change no longer a dream.

On the other hand, the GAP Administration is working closely with UNICEF to boost social development and increase the share of women in regional growth. The GAP project, which enjoys massive political and public support, has already made some big changes in village life: supplies of drinking water have improved-so much so that most village houses now have at least one cold water tap. Roads provide easy access to even the most isolated of villages. Literacy has improved, and infant mortality has dropped. Another positive development which has shown up over the last few years is that the so-called "landless population" has dropped by 25%. This is important because it means that the old feudal system of the baron landlords and family chieftains who have dominated the region for centuries is finally on the way out.

With the slow but sure elimination of the oppressive feudal system, so opposed to progress and shared access to the agricultural riches of the region, land-ownership even if only in a small way- has been made possible for the many, rather than just the chosen few. Dreams of a new and richer life are becoming real for many families that once could hope for nothing more than crumbs from the table of the rich landowners. Slowly the advantages once available only to more "fortunate" city dwellers are becoming part of village life: health and education services are making their presence felt, resettlement services and the introduction of contemporary social standards are widening the horizons of once cloistered village life.

Not everyone however, wants to see the old ways go. Village life, for so long dominated by the menfolk, does not so readily accept new rights for women that at first seem to conflict with social norms built up over centuries. The men in the little village of Saglik accept, but look askance at, the small centre there for the education of village women and girls. Although it was the women of the village who cleaned up and painted the small building where they meet, it was the men who told them what colour it had to be. Now the men and boys hang around outside as the women are taught by 22 year old social worker Secil Aslan from Ankara. But the men are not left out, where possible they are included in programmes and they are also taught how to control the size of their families.

Despite the misgivings of the men, real progress is being made. Why, only a short time ago, fifty village women got together and went to the cinema in nearby Urfa. Quite something when the restricted, housebound life of the average village woman is taken into consideration. Just what the village gentlemen thought about it is not on record.

New life, new horizons

Bread is the staff of life, but without water, where would the bread be? By tapping into the huge reserves of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, and bringing water to the thirsty flatlands through the huge Sanliurfa tunnels that are 26.5 kms long, the dream that Turkey could indeed be the bread basket of the Middle East regions has become a reality.

Regional wealth increases almost daily, but of more vital importance is the new opportunity, the new life that is being opened up to the people of the GAP regions. One young farmer, although pleased with GAP training programmes and the new wealth coming into his family wants to be an entrepreneur and expand his horizons-a way of thinking that would have been impossible only a few short years ago.

This then is the reality of the huge GAP project. Not just the massive Ataturk dam, squatting in the Anatolian hills like a sleeping giant lying in the sun, but also the human element that adds life and colour and meaning to all the cold statistics. The dam and its connected power units and irrigation facilities stand alone in solitary splendour redolent with power, but the reality of the dream is seen in the plains and villages in the huge area included in the project. Villagers, both the menfolk and the womenfolk, are throwing off the yoke of old traditions as education, freedoms and new wealth point the way to a contemporary life in line with developments throughout the country.

It would be wrong to say that the road to GAP was paved with gold. It would be just as wrong to say that it was paved with dreams. However, the new life in the region, the growth and social wellbeing all declare the truth of "first a dream and then reality."

written by Christopher WILDIG