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Editorial: Dam and damage

The world should help reconcile progress, preservation

Wednesday, July 12, 2000

Turkey has many historic ruins and an inadequate supply of electrical power. That's why floodwaters will crest over the abandoned city of Zeugma on Oct. 4, drowning villas, a long-lost commercial district and an emperor's treasury of mosaics, masonry and other artifacts from the Roman Empire.

The construction of a 22-dam hydroelectric project on the Euphrates River has already forced 30,000 people from their homes, and archeologists will soon be pried out of a site that could shed light on the much-neglected Roman Near East. The glimpses of the city offered in the frantic recovery effort - richly colored wallpainting, exquisite engravings and well-preserved homes - make the loss especially heartbreaking.

Officials have refused to halt construction of the dams to save the town, and for understandable reasons. The multibillion-dollar project aims to bring jobs and energy to southeastern Turkey, an impoverished region lacking in both. The damming of rivers has flooded other historic sites, but officials have few alternatives; the country uses almost all of its oil and coal deposits for domestic needs, and attempts to extend gas lines from neighboring countries have failed. The only way to create power (for now) is to dam rivers, even if they flood excavation sites and displace people.

Zeugma is all but lost - parting the waters would cost money that officials say they can't spare. But other ruins down the Euphrates might still be saved. If Turkey and outside nations do care about preserving ancient history, they might remember the last time rising waters threatened a precious archeological site. The construction of the Aswan High Dam along the Nile in the early '60s threatened thousands of temples, statues and tombs.

With help from the United Nations, Egypt cut ancient structures into giant blocks and moved them upriver. The international community ought to undertake a similar project, identifying key sites and removing them (or as much of the ruins as can be removed) to drier ground.

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