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  • Ilgın Özkul

The Istanbul Canal: a “Dream Project” for Erdogan, a "Nightmare Project” for Turkey

The Istanbul Canal was first brought to the world’s attention by Erdogan around the year 2011. Although its plan dates to the pre-Erdogan era, it never came to fruition, either due to a lack of resources or because the project’s dangers weren't properly considered. In fact, the architects of this canal date back to the Ottoman period, which partly gives us an indication of Erdogan’s impulsive attachment to the project. Now that it is actually happening, there is serious debate revolving around this “crazy project.” While Erdogan, the current president of Turkey, calls it his dream project, most citizens who are aware of this project’s possible consequences continue to express their opposition to its construction.

So, what is the Istanbul Canal Project? It is planned to be a 45 km long artificial seaway connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Its construction is estimated to last for 7 years, will cost around 10 billion pounds and will require the employment of 10 million workers. Erdogan says that its main objectives are to get rid of the ship traffic in Bosporus and ensure security, and calls it “one of the biggest projects of the century.”

Betrayal to Istanbul, punishment to the citizens

When the Istanbul Canal first came to the fore, people asked the same questions: Where would the government find the budget to carry out this project? When the country’s most significant problems consist of unemployment, debt, education, and inflation, why would the government want to prioritize this “mega-project”?

When Istanbul’s new airport was under construction, both state-run and non-government banks contributed financially. But with a project as risky as the Istanbul Canal, it is difficult to find a domestic bank crazy enough to help with the financing. As always, the burden seems to be put on the citizens (the “build operate transfer” model of the project indicates that the financing will be provided through taxation).

These do not conclude the negative impacts of the canal. Erdogan expressed that the Istanbul Canal would be beyond the scope of even the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal, two canals which significantly reduce the distance that ships have to travel and as such have enormous benefit for travellers. What Erdogan did not mention is that when they were being built, no natural waterways were harmed. In contrast, the Istanbul Canal’s route is to pass through Lake Kucukcekmece, Sazlidere Dam, and Terkos Dam. The Sazlidere Dam will be uprooted, smaller streams that feed three other lakes could be disrupted, and as a result, the city’s water supply will be put at risk. Additionally, connecting the Sea of Marmara to the Black sea might ruin the balance of life in the water as the Sea of Marmara is saltier. This project, scientists have declared, is bound to be an ecological disaster.

Besides the citizens of Istanbul, hundreds of petitioners, 126 ambassadors, and even Istanbul’s mayor Ekrem Imamoglu are against the canal. Imamoglu’s said that the Istanbul Canal would mean “suicide” for the city while referring to the project’s environmental consequences.

Impact on the Montreux Declaration: an arms race in the Black Sea?

One of the major worries of the project emerges from its potential threat to the Montreux Declaration, which preserves Turkey’s control over the Turkish Straits. It allows the free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime and restricts the passage of naval ships that do not belong to the Black Sea states. In terms of potential risk of political backlash, Turkey is particularly vulnerable to Russia.

For Russia, it is vital that it has free passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, that ships coming from and to Russia have the freedom of navigation, and that the transportation to the Black Sea of ships not belonging to Black Sea states is restricted within the Montreux Declaration. Therefore, it is unlikely that Russia will open Montreux up for discussion. However, it seems that the canal project will bring about several issues regarding the passage of merchant and naval ships. In this context, Turkey has to work sensibly on the conditions to which the vessels passing through the canal must adhere, so that no conflict arises. In the case of Montreux’s rules being abandoned, Russia could increase its authority over the Turkish Straits, which Turkey has protected since 1923. Another danger would arise if the US were to push its submarines and aircraft carriers into the Black Sea. For Turkey, this could mean the risk of facing opposition from Russia.

The canal is estimated to generate around 774 million pounds per year, but it is unreasonable to assume that it will be a significant source of revenue, considering that the ships can travel through the Bosphorus canal for free.

The construction of the Istanbul Canal is meant to maintain the traffic in the Bosphorus and to create revenue through tolls. However, there is no guarantee that these two main objectives will become a reality. Even so, one should keep in mind that these potential short-term gains could bring about irrecoverable losses for Turkey. The risks are endless and terrifying.

While it is clear that the public should be informed of this mega-project’s downsides, the government continues to promote it only as advantageous. Questions are being asked, but Erdogan's response is only that “we will build it whether they want it or not” and does not compromise with regards to his “no stopping, push on” mindset.

Image by Saad Salim on Unsplash

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