Turkey inaugurated on Saturday (26/6) the construction works of the Istanbul Canal, a 45-kilometer infrastructure that artificially links Europe and Asia for the first time in history and opens a new navigable route between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.
The work is described by the country’s president, Recip Tayip Erdogan, as a “crazy project”.
Since 2011, when Erdogan (who was prime minister at the time) introduced the bill, this ambitious plan, inspired by the Panama and Suez canals and running parallel to the Bosphorus Strait, has been moving forward. The works are expected to take seven years, according to the local press.
The project is far from being a consensus in Turkey, with criticism about its possible social, economic and environmental repercussions.
How is the project?
The gap between the continents created by the project will turn Istanbul — which with more than 12 million inhabitants is the largest city in Turkey — at least technically, into an island.
The new waterway will be 25 meters deep and 250 to thousand meters wide, depending on the stretches.
The channel will run in a south-northeast direction through the so-called Küçükçekmece-Sazlıdere-Durusu corridor.
Part of the route will pass through Lake Küçükçekmece, near the Sea of Marmara, flowing into the Black Sea through the Sazlıdere Dam.
One of the busiest sea routes in the world
The Turkish government defends its project arguing that it will serve to ease ship traffic on the Bosphorus, one of the narrowest and busiest natural sea lanes in the world.
The canal will be built at a cost of more than $8 billion, according to authorities, and will allow 185 ships to pass daily, compared to 118 to 125 that cross the Bosphorus today.
“The main objective of this project is to reduce the risks arising from the passage of ships loaded with hazardous materials through the Bosphorus”, informed the Turkish Ministry of Transport in 2018, when it presented the final route of the channel.
In 2016, around 42,000 ships traveled on the only natural waterway between Europe and Asia. In the same period, 16,800 ships crossed the Panama Canal and a similar number sailed through the Suez Canal.
The Bosphorus — 30 km long and 750 meters wide and 3.7 km wide — is the only outlet from the Black Sea to countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Georgia and the ports of southern Russia.
On its banks, residential areas and services are planned that will extend the city of Istanbul to the west.
Urban and civil engineering mega-projects were, in recent years, one of the tools used by the Erdogan government to boost the Turkish economy.
Erdogan, leader of the right-wing Islamic Justice and Development Party, has ruled Turkey since 2003 — before 2014 as prime minister and since then as the country’s president.
A new airport in Istanbul or the third bridge over the Bosphorus and the Eurasian 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 channel
The Istanbul Canal is, however, the largest of all these infrastructures, and also one of the most controversial.
The project provoked strong criticism, both in scientific, environmental, economic and urban terms.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu called the Istanbul Canal a “killer project”, warning that it will exacerbate urban sprawl and generate “undeserved income” at the expense of the environment.
“I haven’t found any real scientist who hasn’t said that [o Canal de Istambul] will destroy or [Mar] of Marmara,” he declared this month.
Some scientists have warned of the risks that changing water salinity could pose to coastal ecosystems in the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara — much saltier — as a result of opening a channel.
“There are two currents on the Bosphorus. It’s like when water and oil separate. At the bottom of the Bosphorus there is a current (denser) towards the north, from the Mediterranean towards the Black Sea, and on the surface another towards the south”, Cemal Saydam, professor of Environmental Engineering at Hacettepe University in Ankara, told the magazine National Geographic.
“If you decide to unite the two seas, you can’t just be thinking about the next five or ten years, or the next elections, or the anniversary of the Turkish republic. You have to think in terms of geological time, because once you do this, there is no turning back.”
‘It’s not logical’
Criticism was also made about the landscape and social impact of the work, which will affect a wooded area and will require the displacement of around 1 million people.
“This is the last thing we need for Istanbul and Turkey. I cannot understand how this project is being proposed. It is neither logical nor feasible,” said urban planner Nuray Çolak, a member of the Northern Forest Defense group, in an article.
Çolak also questions the potential impact of the work on the Sazlidere dam, which supplies drinking water to several neighborhoods in the city and will be crossed by the canal.
Since the first announcement a decade ago, the Istanbul Canal — which will charge a toll to ships that use it — has also raised a debate over whether the bill violates the Montreux Convention, a 1936 agreement that gives Turkey control of the Bosphorus and of the Dardanelles, guaranteeing the free transit of civilians in times of peace.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly pointed out the “importance of preserving” the Montreux Convention for “regional stability and security” in an April 9 telephone conversation with Erdogan.
Russian state news agency Tass also said the project “may undermine Russia’s support for its regional allies” and “threat” Moscow’s foreign policy.
The treaty restricts the passage of military vessels from countries outside the Black Sea.
So far, the Turkish Executive has argued that “the Montreux Convention would not need any corrections as a result of the bill” because they are “different” issues.
* This article was originally published in 2018 by BBC News Mundo (the BBC’s Spanish service) and updated June 2021 with the latest news.
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