Turkey’s earthquakes raise questions over dam safety and its transboundary implications

February’s disaster has renewed international scrutiny of the safety of Turkey’s dams and the risks they pose to downstream states.

March 29, 2023 - 5 minute read

The Bottom Line

> Turkey has no specific dam safety legislation and lacks transparency over the operational safety and maintenance of its 579 dams. The status of the dams’ structural integrity is difficult to ascertain, with government records and UK-based experts suggesting it may be insufficient.

> February’s catastrophic earthquakes have brought renewed international scrutiny on the effectiveness of Turkey’s state institutions in managing the country’s infrastructure, including its dams. These could pose serious risks to downstream inhabitants if they are not adequately maintained.

> Syria and Iraq lack the financial and political resources to leverage against Turkey and request better oversight of upstream dams. This lack of resources extends to preparation and evacuation measures in the event of upstream dam collapse.

> International water treaties must be enforced and include oversight of the operation and maintenance of critical infrastructure that is essential to the safety of downstream riparian populations. If left unchecked, Turkey’s dams could wreak catastrophic flooding at home and in neighbouring countries that would dwarf the current humanitarian crisis.

Stability of major dams uncertain after quakes

The devastating earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria in early February, causing significant damage to both countries’ infrastructure and over 45,000 deaths, have renewed international scrutiny of the placement and safety of Turkey’s 579 dams. The dams were already a source of concern for both domestic and international water experts due to significant transparency issues over their operation and maintenance. A total of 110 are in zones impacted by the quakes, leading some experts to question the effectiveness of Turkey’s safety measures and to express concern over the potential humanitarian fallout and damage – to both Turkey and its downstream neighbours – in the event of a dam’s collapse.

In the wake of February’s disaster the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works (Devlet Su İşleri Genel Müdürlüğü, DSI) – which manages and operates the majority of Turkey’s dams – conducted a large-scale investigation into the safety of dams in the impacted zones. Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Professor Vahit Kirişci stated that “there is no problem” in 79 of the dams inspected by the DSI thus far.

Of these, the Atatürk Dam, located on the transboundary Euphrates river, is one of the world’s largest, containing approximately 48bn cu metres of water. If ever breached, the dam would risk catastrophic damage to downstream areas. As well as the ministry review, an academic paper by the International Society for Rock Mechanics and Rock Engineering (ISRM) released on 15th February said that “no damage was reported” to the dam.

However, videos circulated on social media and some news sites show large quantities of water flowing from the Atatürk Dam following a supposed emergency release in the quakes’ aftermath. Emergency releases are used to reduce the pressure on dams and delay the progression of any structural degradation. Separately, the international humanitarian data assessment NGO, ACAPs, reported that there were cracks present in the Atatürk Dam.

ISRM also reported extensive cracking along the crests and embankments of the Kartalkaya, Sultansuyu, Sürgü and Maydanki dams – also located inside the impacted zones.

The Dam Safety Association confirmed the damage to the dams listed above, and also said that one dam in the impacted zone had suffered heavy damage as a result of the earthquakes. The Turkish NGO stated that multiple other dams have experienced significant damage and underwent “urgent operational measures” to prevent the problems from escalating. These measures included emergency water releases.

<p> <img src="The Sultansuyu Dam inTurkey.jpg" alt="Cracks along the crest of the Sultansuyu Dam.">

Cracks along the crest of the Sultansuyu Dam. Source: Syriac Press, published Feb. 13, 2023


Lack of transparency and accountability in dam management raise serious questions about disaster risk

The global focus on Turkey’s response to the earthquakes, and the significant contribution of its lax construction regulations to the extent of the damage, have made the topic of dam security even more sensitive. This was reflected in attempts to access documentation and speak to contacts about the subject for this report. One contact commented that any dam failure would have major domestic and international political ramifications.

There are no dam safety laws in Turkey. While this is unfortunately the case in most Middle Eastern states, in Turkey the number of dams, the number of internationally classed large dams, and the significant implications of the dams on riparian states, necessitates specific and accountable dam safety be in place. International observers cite Turkey’s lack of specific, coherent, and cohesive legislation for the monitoring and regulation of dams as a cause for serious alarm. They state that more should be done to push the Turkish government “to pay heed” to the question of dam safety via comprehensive legislation that ensures accountability for dam safety and addresses key safety issues.

The safety measures for the effective operation and management of Turkey’s dams originate from several government non-dam-specific laws covering flooding, defence, natural disaster and environment, which have not been updated for 20 years. This contrasts with the UK, for example, which has three separate legislative acts specifically related to dam safety across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In the UK, dams are considered a matter of public interest and safety. Annual dam safety incident reports are published on The British Dam Society website and British Government website, and in June 2022 the country updated guidance on dam surveillance, monitoring and good ownership practices. Up-to-date records on the status of Turkey’s dam and waterways infrastructure, however, are not readily retrievable: annual inspection reports and General Dam Safety Evaluation Reports are not accessible online.

The most recent readily available documentation on dam safety in Turkey is from the DSI and dates back to 2008. In the document, the Head of Dam Safety writes that 85% of Turkey’s dams pose a significant and/or high risk. Former DSI personnel have stated that this is no longer the case but were unable to confirm what percentage were still considered a threat.

The document also cites the concerns of the DSI’s instrumentation branch regarding the effectiveness of dam monitoring equipment and instruments installed during dam construction. Without accurate readings, assessments of a dam’s stability cannot be reliably conducted or verified. The document states that “unfortunately, for some dams, the number of relevant instruments are not adequate and some are not fully operational”. Again, while industry sources have stated that this is no longer the case, no data has been provided on what upgrades took place or how much was invested in the equipment.

If the majority of Turkey’s dam safety monitoring equipment is indeed outdated or sub-standard, this has serious implications for the security of Turkey’s dams and for the validity of recent ministerial comments about dam safety post-earthquakes. It is possible that some dams may have passed the serviceability limit state, i.e., are no longer structurally operational and could degrade to the point of collapsing. While this remains unlikely, the difficulty in accessing Turkey’s data leaves international observers and downstream riparian populations uncertain of the situation.


What’s next – implications for downstream states

The threat of flooding from dam collapses in Turkey further aggravates the already challenging water security situations of Syria and Iraq. Both have ongoing water security issues with their upstream neighbour, which accelerated in the 1980s when the latter embarked on an extensive damming project. Turkey does not observe the 1987 international treaty that stipulates the minimum required flow to downstream riparian states, thereby depriving Syria and Iraq of large volumes of water and significantly impacting their domestic water security and, by extension, food security. Ignoring water scarcity – a known threat and risk multiplier – that is preventable risks escalating pre-existing political tensions towards socio-political conflict.

According to former DSI personnel, all of Turkey’s dams conform to international standards of peak ground acceleration (PGA), i.e., the strength of earthquake that the dam can withstand. Sources claim that dams located on transboundary rivers are built with higher PGAs. This is a particularly important factor given the serious implications if a dam were to fail and inundate downstream areas. However, it has not been possible to verify this via official documentation.

Turkey currently does not make publicly available inundation assessments on which areas would be flooded in the event of a dam collapse. This data is critical for Syria and Iraq to develop effective prevention and evacuation measures, which involve identifying at-risk populations, and calculating flood-severity-to-warning-time ratios and their impact on fatality rates, and how to mitigate these.

For example, it remains unclear, due to conflicting reports, whether there was an emergency release from the Atatürk Dam due to emerging cracks or whether it has suffered no damage. The status of the dam, and the effectiveness of its safety mechanisms, must be transparent; a collapse would cause a humanitarian disaster dwarfing that caused by the recent earthquakes.

Therefore, it is vital that the international community urges Turkey to adopt specific legislation on dam security and safety, clearly assigns accountability for dams’ safety, and ensures data is made available to affected constituents.

Additionally, Syria and Iraq should be encouraged to request, and supported in accessing, transboundary dam risk assessments, inundation zone assessments, and annual risk assessment reviews from the DSI – particularly considering the lack of transparency around the status of Turkey’s dams post February’s earthquakes. Only then can suitable preventative and evacuation assessments be made, and future humanitarian tragedies be avoided.

Jemima Oakey, Associate, Azure Strategy

Jemima Oakey