"Project of the Century": the technical and the political in northern Cyprus

Ezgican Ozdemir

Central European University

In July 2016, the pipes and taps of northern Cypriots started to flow with "Turkish water". It makes its course all the way from Anamur, Mersin of southern Turkey, through the 80 km long pipeline that runs underneath the Mediterranean Sea, into the Turkish-occupied territories of the island of Cyprus. Presented and seen widely as a "spectacular infrastructure" (Schwenkel 2015), the so-called "Project of the Century" is not simply an infrastructural network of dams, treatment facilities, and kilometers long pipelines that hang from the bedrock of the eastern Mediterranean. It physically connects "babyland" north Cyprus to its "motherland" Turkey like an umbilical cord, providing the source of life itself. It is the continuation and consolidation of a political project that dates back further than the 1974 coup d'etat of Greece and Cyprus and the subsequent "peace operation" by the Turkish Armed Forces.

In this paper, I attempt to explore "the techno-political terrain" (Von Schnitzler 2013)and the multiple ways in which negotiation, contestation, and constitution of political life happens in relation to infrastructural upgrade in northern Cyprus. First, I sketch an ethnographic picture of what these contestations over the political meanings of incoming water entail in relation to their liminal positions not just historically, but also in terms of being stuck between Turkish occupation and partition from south of the island. With this, I argue that the incoming "Turkish" water and its infrastructural parts become the very political terrain in which northern Cypriots discuss notions like sovereignty, willpower, and occupation. Second, I focus on the competing viewpoints of northern Cypriot and Turkish experts, technicians, and engineers about the pipeline project and highlight that their involvement in the infrastructure project is not merely one of providing technical expertise, knowledge, and service; rather, their expert positions are repeatedly contested by their counterparts, and are deemed responsible by each other while at the same time distancing themselves from that very responsibility. Here, I introduce the two water authorities, namely the Turkish Devlet Su İşleri – State Water Authority (DSI hereafter) and the Turkish Cypriot Su İşleriDairesi – Water Works Department (SID hereafter). Looking at the work and responsibilities that go into the effort of implementing and governing a new infrastructural arrangement, I argue, does not only illuminate the political dissonances and hierarchies in the northern Cypriot polity, but also is "also capable of energizing politics [and] mobilizing bodies and bringing about future forms of change"(emphasis added Knox 2017, 366). In other words, the technical terrain in relation to water infrastructure in northern Cyprus can reveal new ways of politics and also new possibilities of political change for the future.

Harvey and Knox (Bennett and Joyce 2013)point out that "a construction project is a complex social field, where rumor and gossip, speculation and secrecy swirl around the calculations and mappings of engineering science, planning and management" (124). Studying infrastructure and the various actors involved in it, therefore is vast and not limited to the operationalization of the state, corporate power, and/or capital; it also reveals the intricacies of everyday negotiations and moral contestations within the social field of experts. With the coming of water and along with a plethora of infrastructural re-arrangements and upgrade, water management and investment in north Cyprus has come to reveal asymmetrical social and political relations between a quasi-colonial regime of occupation and a heterogeneous and dubious polity of years long subjugation and disenfranchisement. These relations are surfaced through negotiations of responsibility and work rather than hiding "beneath a garb of ostensibly technical solution" (Carey and Pedersen 2017: 22). Infrastructural change and technological upgrades with an explicit ideological vision may re-articulate social and spatial divisions (Angelo and Hentschel 2015).In this paper, I aim to put these various planners, engineers and officials into conversation through my encounters with them and their account of encounters with each other (or lack thereof). With this, I emphasize how "Turkish water" and its management convey the dissonance between the local and foreign planners, their concerns, expectations from each other and from the two central governing bodies. In north Cyprus, a neatly constructed and envisioned infrastructural network of pipes therefore, reflect the messy and unequal power relations within the communities of this "make-believe space"(Navaro 2012).

When I first entered the field in January 2016, the arrival of water was imminent; farmers, city-dwellers, seasonal workers, and even weekender gambling tourists were waiting for Turkish state officials to declare when exactly the water would come. Construction was over, the Cyprus end of the pipelines, barely visible underneath the sea at the coast of Guzelyali, became the talk of this "small town" that is north Cyprus. My landlady Emel, who is a public servant at the TRNC Customs office, warned me on the first day in my Nicosia flat that if the home appliances like the washing machine or the kitchen sink gets rusty, I should not worry, and that she would not cut the cost out of my deposit. I was startled at the specificity of her caution. At the end of my first month in the flat, even the cutlery became an orange-brown color; rust and salt were commonplace in the north. The promise of clean water, after decades of waiting, was about to become more than a promise. Emel, like many other Nicosians, was excited about "Turkish water", "I don't care how much more we will pay for this water, I am sure it is so clear and sweet, it is from the Toros mountains".

The Geçitköy dam as part of the water pipeline project was built near a village of some 200 population, only 2.3 km away from the Mediterranean Sea. Upon the first batch of water pumping through the pipes and into the dam, the people of the north flocked to the outskirts of the water mass and enjoyed a view of the landscape that was already there—the vista of Pentadaktylos forests gained new meaning with the presence of the incoming water—a piece of motherland. Having caught the public attention, the shallow waters invited people to have picnics around it. A man even made it to the front page of many newspapers, because he enjoyed the incoming water a bit too much by swimming in it after a few hours of daytime drinking of whiskey. In his interview on a local newspaper, he described the water as "holy", and that President Erdoğan was so mighty that now northerners like himself, will no longer suffer from poor quality water resources of the island. He declared that the water is so holy and healthy that it will heal his arthritis, which is why he decided to let himself into the cold unprocessed spring water that came all the way from the Toros Mountains of southern Turkey. The incoming water along with its infrastructural components then, become something more than its technicality, its functionality for sustenance. Just like the swimmer, many other northerners I spoke to agree that the incoming water is not only needed, but also expected. Water as the most vital resource for human living, becomes a means to consolidate the power of Turkish state over its occupied territories of the island and it is deemed as a responsibility of the Turkish state to provide. Thus, Turkey as the liberator state is also the nurturer state. And for many, water was not just life, but also life endowed upon them by the motherland.

However, the excitement and anticipation were interrupted as the TRNC and Turkish state came closer to signing a bilateral agreement on the privatization of the water and its management. Meetings were being set up, civil society organizations and political parties were in crisis mode. With the incoming water and its subsequent privatization, water once again, became the center of attention within local politics and ensued much controversy in civil society that led to formation of the short-lived Water Platform, a watch group comprised of CSOs, unions and so forth. These were people though in the minority, who had a different reaction to the incoming water. Moral outrage and dissatisfaction regarding who would manage the water and how were the main sentiments within this group. But most importantly, for them, the incoming water symbolized a self-ascribed incompetence as a people. In the multiple meetings during the course of three months, words like the following were uttered frequently: "The water is here, let's use it, but let's manage it ourselves. They [the Turkish state] think that we are dumb, as if we don't understand what they are doing" or "the prime minister is surrendering our honor and willpower to the Turkish government by signing this privatization agreement in Ankara"… "It is this TRNC government, its incompetence and ill-judgment that brought us here, this privatization agreement is yet another sanction". These sentiments demonstrate that with water infrastructure and its privatization, the Turkish state and its dominance over the TRNC is solidified. What is more important I think is that the Water Platform, formed purely for raising awareness about an infrastructural system of utility, dissolved as soon as people stopped talking about water, and started talking about their lack of sovereignty, living under a rule of the Turkish state's sanctions and interventions and even self-attributed cultural stereotypes of Turkish Cypriots being incompetent, lazy and not equipped well to manage anything. Water infrastructure was no longer a technicality or a necessity, it came to signify their liminal lives: on the one hand, their senses of inadequacy still lingers on, and on the other, they imagine themselves to be self-governable.

At another similar meeting, organized by two oppositional parties United Cyprus Party (BKP) and New Cyprus Party (YKP), Behcet was invited to provide expert knowledge as the head of the Union of the Chambers of Turkish Cypriot Engineers and Architects (KTMMOB) and a retired civil engineer. "We are an island community. Islands always have water problems. Precipitation in this island, in the past 30 years decreased by 40 percent. This is not new, the bells for our water troubles started ringing during the British mandate," said Behcet, continuing with an alarmed tone. He declared, "I am here to talk about the adventure of this coming water; the technical side of things." According to his speech at the meeting and a later interview, since the 1950s there have been many feasibility reports on the prospect of Turkey bringing water to the island. The scant water resources have not just been a problem of the north; the Buffer Zone surely does not divide what is subterranean. In fact, the 1964 US Area Handbook for Cyprus predicted the future quality and quantity of water aquifers of the island "with little optimism and…somber conclusions"(Nachmani 2000, 76). And urban development, population growth, and countless resorts, hotels and golf courses on both sides of the Green Line have exacerbated water shortages and quality immensely.

During my two encounters with him, Behcet dodged my questions about the "technical side of things". I was keen to learn how the slow process of aquifer salinization occurs, the engineering of pumping the water from one side to another and many other aspects of the system that I expected a civil engineer would be excited to tell. Yet he wanted to talk about hegemony, civilization and colonization and more extensively, Turkish Cypriot identity and self-determination. On the one hand, he noted that transferring water from one place to another is a sign of civilization and on the other, water could not be utilized to consolidate a state's hegemony. For him, the Turkish state's privatized and monopolized scheme of transferred water management was "worse than colonial rule or how once the Ottomans ruled its provinces". He spoke to me not as an engineer/expert, but as a union organizer. He exclaimed that from the beginning, KTMMOB along with municipalities defended the right for local Cypriot government to manage the water, while during that time, the Minister of Natural Resources was repeating in his public speeches that TRNC needs the support of Turkey and Turkish Cypriots are not capable of managing such an advanced technological system. With the leadership of Behcet, KTMMOB initiated a committee that would form a team of experts for the management of treatment and storage facilities and pumping station. Upon their training, the team of experts that comprised of environmental engineers, technicians, etc. were allocated to the facilities.

Ayfer is one of those environmental engineers that joined the team in 2015 and started working on a "service provision" contract at the Camlibel Water Treatment Facility. Since the beginning of the project, the Water Works Authority (DSI) of the Turkish state had become the main office, which oversaw the facilities' construction and the administrative and managerial setup. It was also (and still is) DSI's staff to provide expert knowledge to the local team at the facilities, but they also became the bosses at the end of the day. Ayfer's biggest concern was that neither did she have a job description, nor her contract affiliated her to any TRNC governing body like the Ministry of Natural Resources or the Water Works Authority (SID) of TRNC. "I was never part of the setting up of the treatment facility; we never really saw the equipment until the first day of our jobs. They took us a couple of times to the pumping station as the pipes were being fixed into place, just for us to see, but that was it." Her implication was that her and the rest of the local team members felt out of place: "What if one day the DSI manager decided that he did not like my work and took my name out of the staff list, what would happen? I simply could not enter the facility—that is it. I have no affiliation to the Cypriot government."

Ayfer's lack of job description and security is symptomatic of how DSI and the Turkish state handled their questionable presence in north Cyprus. It is DSI who decides what and who goes in and out of the complex, which is in the middle of the Camlibel forest behind barbed wires and cement walls. Her job represented KTMMOB, a north Cypriot union, yet no Cypriot office was responsible for her; it was as if DSI was making the KTMMOB a favor for letting the local team of experts in on the job. Her boss was DSI, an external Water Works Authority that was only accountable to the Turkish state. Not only this, Ayfer also revealed that at the beginning of her job post, she realized the Water Works Authority of TRNC (SID) had no clue about the technical work that was being conducted at the facility: "They simply looked at us and DSI from a distance, did not move their fingers. I swear, they did not have a single document in their hands, it was not of their interest." Not only SID, but the Ministry of Natural Resources also did not attempt any input in the setting up of the facility. Ayfer claimed that they "simply allocated the funds and did not ask about what exactly our jobs entailed, what we did daily, or what they were responsible for. The coordination and management were in the sole hands of DSI, even though the bilateral agreement states DSI and SID to be equal partners/shareholders.

DSI's arrival to the north in 2010 was a quiet one. Their technical expertise was direly needed as the pipeline infrastructure of the north was crumbling. As the components of the project were being constructed, such as the treatment plants, pumping facilities, etc., DSI acted as the responsible office that was merely accountable to the Embassy of the Turkish Republic. In fact, when I requested a visit to the Treatment Plant, they directed me to the Embassy and informed me that it is highly unlikely that the Embassy would grant me a permit. After my many attempts of setting up meetings with engineers and staff at DSI, getting a permit for entering the Camlibel Treatment Facility failed, I was finally directed to a control engineer, Kemal, who was too impatient to finish the half an hour interview with me. While waiting for Kemal to arrive to the DSI office in Nicosia, Remzi, another staff member at the office told me about what happened earlier that day as soon as he learned about my inquiry. Showing me photos of the storage facility's gate on his phone, he said "See what they did, they ripped off the Turkish flag, broke the gate. They do this; they do not want us here." Remzi, a Turkish appointed staff member of DSI found this act of "vandalism" as he called it, significant to tell me, a fellow Turkish person. Turkish Cypriots, he implied, were being ungrateful to the Turkish state's "gift" to them, as what the Prime Minister at the time has called the infrastructure project. Kemal, on the other hand, had a sterile and technical approach to my inquiry at first. After laying out all the numbers in kilometers, meters cube and explaining in detail the geological bedrock between Turkish and northern Cypriot coasts, he went on to describe how the cleanliness of water that they were bringing does not matter, because the infrastructure within north Cypriot landscape is obsolete. According to him and north Cypriot geologists and hydrologists that I spoke to, some pipes that bring water from the municipal storage to end-users are broken, which causes seepage loss, and even contain asbestos. Kemal proudly declared that these pipes were planned by DSI to be replaced; 478 km of new technology pipes are already in place and 270 km more was due to be upgraded. Among many technical experts—north Cypriot or otherwise, it seemed that some pipes in the island being from British colonial times was a common hearsay; though no one knew if that was true.

Despite DSI's presence and authority within the whole infrastructure project, Kemal confidently told me that DSI is not equipped to manage water of a whole country [1] on its own. Not having the infrastructure, the staff, nor experience on it, DSI was supposed to finish construction and hand it over to the Cypriot authorities, as they would do in any other situation, he said. However, he admitted that DSI should have had a better public relations division with this particular project in TRNC: "We thought we were going to do the construction, set up all the technical requirements and then leave. This is what we normally do in Turkey; irrigation or potable water pipelines, whatever is the project, we are a technical department. Maybe DSI should have been more mindful of being inclusive of the local people here, I do not know. But we are engineers; DSI did not foresee such big controversy." He was referring to the ongoing discontent amongst northern Cypriots about privatization and inflated prices of water (will be discussed in a previous chapter). Kemal's conviction that DSI was/is not responsible for the social impact of such a vast infrastructural change goes in contrast to how the local experts discern their presence on the island.

As our conversation was coming to an end, Kemal got a phone call and it sounded very much like a call from one of the 28 mayors in north Cyprus, since he answered the phone "What can I do for you, Mr. Mayor?" It seemed clear that the mayor was concerned about a storage facility in his municipal district. Deciphering their conversation from what Kemal was explaining, the water in this facility was not enough for 16 villages of the district. Kemal then confirmed that there are many projects being drafted at the moment for upgrading and placing additional pipes to a lot of the districts and that they cannot do anything until the projects are finalized. More interestingly, he told the mayor that the local Water Authority (SID) never planned any improvement, which is why DSI has been appointed to do it now. It seemed that SID was to blame for a lot of the recurring malfunctions and lack of repair.

For Turgut, the deputy manager of SID, the story was different. Selim, an officer from the geology department, had told me that he got an appointment with Turgut for me and so we went in. Unbeknownst to Selim, we had just arrived at the office to witness an impromptu meeting among Turgut; Mustafa, the officer from the agriculture department; and Murat, a hydrologist that I had known from before. They were discussing the Master plan for agriculture for the next few years; the Ministry of Agriculture was not satisfied with the statistics they were providing in the document. Referring to the statistics, data and expert knowledge that SID presumably included in the Master Plan, Turgut said, "A person who has no clue about what we [write], holds that minister seat!" With no objections to his statement from anyone in the room, Turgut complained about many other things during those three and a half hours of casual meeting. The feeling of "the world versus SID" resonated in the room as they all expressed their agreement on these few things: the current management is failing, and SID does not have enough technical staff—something Ayfer was also referring to; water privatization agreement was the worst thing that has ever happened to TRNC; and numbers and technical knowledge on water consumption (irrigation and other) of north Cyprus is serious business and nobody consults them. The Master Plan for Agriculture had a deadline and the numbers weren't adding up regarding how much water was needed for production in the two major agricultural regions of the north. Murat took out a piece of paper and started uttering numbers in meter cubes, ballparking how much each region uses, how much each crop needs annually and so on. When I asked them whether these numbers were accurate, they scolded me for not trusting them. Turgut said to the whole room with a careless tone, "There needs to be a long-term government policy, a water legislation, but there isn't. This needs to be scientifically handled, statistics need to be collected". The obvious irony here in what they were doing and simultaneously what he said did not seem to bother any of them. However, their complaints were not directed much at neither DSI or the Turkish state. Especially Turgut repeated many times that it is the TRNC state's responsibility to implement a long-term plan for water management, and yet what the government officials do is they "force us to lie to their faces for years", referring to water management in general. Turgut is perfectly aware that their tinkering with numbers to please TRNC officials and minister is outright lying. And it is also clear that SID has been getting by with such maneuvering and dodging of responsibility even before the coming of "Turkish water".

With the recent general election resulting in the formation of a minority coalition government, the TRNC state and its people are continuing the heated debate on water provisioning and investment. The new Minister of Natural Resources, just like after every election, is enthusiastic and supposedly ready to take action. On February 22nd, he announced that there needs to be a "Water Board", which would oversee water policies, legislation and developing projects, while SID should be responsible for the practical/technical aspects of its management [2] . His statement does not mention where DSI or the Turkish state would stand. Meanwhile DSI is currently accepting bids in a tender at the Ankara headquarters for the private management of this water infrastructural system in north Cyprus.


1. There has been no census conducted since 2011 in TRNC. According to projections for the year 2016, the population is approximately 350.000. DSI also operates, developing projects, in many other regions in Turkey, such as İzmir with a population of 4 million.

2. http://www.yeniduzen.com/sahali-suyla-ilgili-politika-belirleme-yetkisi-su-kurumunda-99271h.htm


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