Turkey inaugurates on Saturday June 26 the construction works of the Istanbul Canal (Kanal Istanbul, in Turkish), a 45 km long infrastructure which will artificially connect Europe and Asia for the first time in history and will open a new waterway between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.
A work that the president of the country himself, Recip Tayip Erdogan, defines as his “crazy project”, as he described it in 2011, when he presented it for the first time in public, when he was still prime minister.
Since then, this ambitious plan inspired by the Panama and Suez canals and which will be parallel to the Bosphorus Strait, has advanced step by step until today, whose works will be celebrated with an official ceremony and will last 7 years, according to local media.
Even if it is not a project that enjoys consensus in Turkey, since criticisms have arisen as to its possible social, economic and environmental repercussions.
How is the Kanal Istanbul project?
The new divide between continents will turn Istanbul, which with over 12 million people is Turkey’s largest city, at least technically, into an island.
The new road – according to the Turkish government – will have 25 meters deep and between 250 and 1,000 meters wideaccording to the headings.
The channel will flow in a south-northeast direction through the so-called “Küçükçekmece-Sazlıdere-Durusu Corridor”.
Part of the route will pass by Lake Küçükçekmece, near the Sea of Marmara, and will flow into the Black Sea through the Sazlıdere Dam.
One of the busiest shipping lanes in the world
The Turkish government defends its project which, it assures, will serve to relieve maritime traffic on the Bosphorusone of the narrowest and busiest natural sea routes in the world.
The canal will be built at a cost of more than $8 billion, authorities say, and will allow 185 ships to pass daily, compared to the 118 to 125 that cross the Bosphorus today.
“The main objective of this project is to reduce the risks posed by the passage of ships loaded with hazardous materials through the Bosphorus”, assured the Turkish Ministry of Transport in 2018, when presenting the final route of the canal.
In 2016, around 42,000 ships traveled the only natural waterway between Europe and Asia. During the same period, 16,800 ships passed through the Panama Canal and a similar number passed through the Suez Canal.
The Bosphorus – with a length of 30 km and a width which varies between 750 m and 3.7 km – is the only outlet to the outside of the Black Sea from Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Georgia and southern Russian ports.
On its banks are planned residential areas and services that will extend the city of Istanbul to the west.
In recent years, urban and civil engineering megaprojects have been one of the tools used by the Erdogan government to revive the Turkish economy.
Erdogan, leader of the right-wing Islamist Justice and Development Party has ruled Turkey since 2003, first as Prime Minister and, since 2014, as President of the country.
A new airport in Istanbul or the third bridge over the Bosphorus and the Eurasia tunnel between Europe and Asia – both opened in 2016 – are just a sample of the major works policy promoted by the Turkish government.
The environmental risks of the new sector
Kanal Istanbul is however the largest of all these infrastructures. Also one of the most controversial.
The project has aroused strong criticism, from a scientific, ecological, economic and urban point of view.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu has called the Istanbul Canal a “killer project”, warning that it will worsen urban sprawl and increase “unearned revenue” at the expense of the environment.
“I haven’t met a real scientist who didn’t say that [el Canal de Estambul] will destroy the [Mar] of Marmara,” he said on June 19.
From an environmental point of view, some scientists have warned of the risks that change in water salinity level for the coastal ecosystems of the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara – much saltier – due to the opening of a new communication channel.
“There are two rivers in the Bosphorus. It’s like when you separate water and olive oil. At the bottom of the Bosphorus there is a (denser) current that goes north, from the Mediterranean to the Netro Sea, and on the surface another that goes south,” he said. National geographic Cemal Saydam, professor of environmental engineering at Hacettepe University in Ankara.
“If you decide to unite the two seas, you cannot think of the next five or ten years, nor the next elections, nor the anniversary of the Turkish Republic. You have to think in terms of geological time, because once that you do this you have no more turning back”, declared the academic, quoted in a recent article.
“It is not logical”
Critics have also been leveled at the landscape and social impact of the works, which will affect a wooded area and will likely result in the displacement of nearly a million people.
“Esto es lo último que necesitamos para Estambul y para Turquía. No puedo intender cómo se plantan un proyecto así. No es logical ni realizable”, affirmed in an article of the revista Politico el planificador urbano Nuray Çolak, miembro del grupo Defensa del Bosque North.
Çolak also wonders about the potential impact of the works on the Sazlidere dam, which feeds potable water to the different districts of the city and will be crossed by the canal.
Since its inception a decade ago, Kanal Istanbul – which will charge tolls from vessels using it – has also raised debate over whether the project is a breach of the Montreux Congress, a 1936 agreement giving Turkey control of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles and guaranteeing the free movement of civilians in peacetime.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly stressed “the importance of preserving” the Montreux Convention for “regional stability and security” during a telephone conversation with Erdogan on April 9.
Russian state news agency Tass also said the project “could undermine Russia’s support for its regional allies” and “threatens” Moscow’s foreign policy.
The treaty restricts the passage of military ships from countries not bordering the Black Sea.
So far, the Turkish executive has maintained that “the Montreux Convention would not need any corrections as a result of the draft” because these are “different” issues.
*This article was originally published in 2018 and was updated in June 2021 with the latest news.
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