‘Kanal Istanbul’ – a scheme to dig a 45-kilometer long channel between the Black Sea coast and the Marmara Sea – is undoubtedly Turkey’s most polarizing project, running close to many of the country’s political fault lines, as well as its geological ones.
To its supporters, it means investment, jobs and safety for Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. To its critics, it means an Eco-catastrophe, a waste of precious funds and a threat to one of the most important treaties underscoring the country’s security.
Also big and strong, though, is the project’s financing needs – particularly at a time when Turkey is going through a protracted economic crisis, deepened by fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kanal Istanbul’s supporters see foreign investment and jobs while those opposed view a $20 billion Eco-Catastrophe in the making.
Ankara is also now targeting the Middle East and Asia to provide much of the funding, too, with China and Qatar widely reported likely to take leading roles.
With a new, canal-side city of about one million people also part of the plan – along with dozens of bridges and highways, marinas and malls – a 2018 estimate from the Turkish Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure put the eventual cost at some US$20 billion.
At the same time, there is a major question mark, too, over who will use the canal, given that just a few kilometers southeast there is a well-used, free alternative – the Bosporus strait.
For millennia, ships have sailed that narrow watercourse, winding through the heart of Istanbul between the Black and Marmara seas.
Usage of the Bosporus is governed by the 1936 Treaty of Montreux, which sets the internationally agreed rules for the ‘Turkish straits’ – generally seen as the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, which then links the Marmara to the Aegean.
Montreux restricts the passage of warships through these straits, while guaranteeing free passage for civilian vessels, during peacetime.
Turkey cannot charge merchant ships a fee to use the straits,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey Program at the Washington Institute, told Asia Times, “or even insist on them using a pilot during transit.
Use of a pilot is highly recommended, too, as the Bosporus contains several sharp turns and many strong currents – narrowing at one point to only 550 meters.
In the past, the channel has seen a number of major collisions and groundings, along with ships even ramming waterfront houses.
The worst accident was in 1979, when an oil tanker collided with a freighter, causing an explosion and fire that killed 42 people.
The Bosporus is really Istanbul’s high street. There is clearly a need to regulate it, particularly when you get dangerous cargoes transiting.
Advocates of Kanal Istanbul point to safety as a major reason for building this alternative route, as it would remove potentially dangerous traffic from the heart of the city.
Critics, however, say that passage of dangerous cargoes has fallen in recent years, as pipelines have been built to ship flammable gasses and liquids.
Since Erdogan first announced Kanal Istanbul, back at an election rally in 2011, its prospective route has been the subject of some intense land deals.
An investigation earlier this month by Turkish newspaper Yenicag revealed that of the 30 million square meters of land covered by the project, 26.7 million square meters had changed hands since 2013.
Land has been bought at a low price by Saudi, Qatari investors, along with wealthy Turks, so they now have an interest in being able to sell it on for a high one.
At the same time, the project could provide a short-term shot in the arm for the Turkish economy, while the jobs it would create could give President Erdogan and the AKP a boost ahead of the crucial 2023 elections.
The project will create lots of linkages between the AKP, the construction businesses that support it, and the working-class voters who might be employed building it. The AKP and Erdogan may be thinking that it could be a winning electoral strategy.
Yet, the potential cost of this economic and political calculation may be much greater in the long run than even the $20 billion price tag.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2021.