Istanbul Canal -- Erdogan's new 'grandiose' project that could turn into a nightmare

Erdogan’s megalomania has stirred up a hornets’ nest. It raises questions of environment and international law that could sink what some in Turkey dismiss as “a crazy project.”
Thursday 23/01/2020
Reality check. Demonstrating against the massive canal project in Istanbul, earlier this month. (AP)
Reality check. Demonstrating against the massive canal project in Istanbul, earlier this month. (AP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dream of building a grandiose new canal to link the Black Sea with the Mediterranean looks, at first glance, quite rational but the hasty way the plan was put forward bears hallmarks of a man enamoured of grandiose projects and raises environmental and legal questions, some of which affect neighbouring countries.

Erdogan’s megalomania has stirred up a hornet’s nest. It raises questions of environment and international law, which could sink what some in Turkey dismiss as “a crazy project.”

The Istanbul Canal project centres on an artificial sea-level waterway on the European side of Turkey that would connect the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and thus the Mediterranean. The stated purpose of the project is to reduce maritime traffic through the 31km corridor of the Bosporus and minimise risks associated, particularly with tankers.

About 43,000 military and civilian vessels of all sizes pass through the Bosporus each year, among them 8,000 tankers carrying 145 million tonnes of crude oil. International pressure is growing to increase marine traffic tonnage through the Turkish strait, which sees nearly three times the traffic of the Suez Canal. The passage of ships is regulated by the 1936 Montreux Convention.

The project was enthusiastically endorsed by Erdogan, whose love of grandiose infrastructure projects is well known. The third bridge over the Bosporus and Istanbul’s huge new airport offered the opportunity for a huge wave of speculation and building that profited the supporters of a man who, when he was mayor of Istanbul, vehemently opposed the idea of a canal.

Ekrem Imamoglu, the current mayor of Istanbul, elected last year against fierce opposition from the president’s Justice and Development Party, is strongly against the project, not least on environmental grounds, at a time when such considerations are gaining greater traction among Turkish voters.

The initial impact assessment by geologists suggested more than 200,000 trees would be felled, that an average of 360 explosions a year would be necessary and approximately 4,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fuel oil will be used.

Cihan Baysal, an academic who is a member of the Northern Forest Defence, a group of environmental activists in Istanbul, speaks of an “ecocide” project. Most Istanbul residents appear to agree.

They have good reason to be concerned.

Cemal Saydam, a professor of environmental engineering at Hacettepe University in Ankara, pointed out: “There are two flows in the Bosporus. At the bottom of the Bosporus, there is a (dense) flow going north to the Black Sea [and], at the surface, another flow coming south.”

The Marmara Sea is far saltier than the Black Sea, which leads to a powerful flow of water as the two bodies try to reach equilibrium. That flow was used by engineers in the 1990s as part of a $600 million World Bank project to provide a sustainable water system for Istanbul. As a result, 97% of the city’s waste is treated.

However, the system could be turned on its end, upending the delicate balance of life in the water. Years of modelling and scientific studies suggest the change in salinity could spark an anoxic state in the waters, which would leave the city smelling of hydrogen sulphide.

Disruption to natural life extends well beyond Istanbul and Turkey. If heavily polluted water from the rivers flows into the Black Sea, it could negatively affect marine life in the Sea of Marmara and beyond. There are also legal questions as to whether the Montreux Convention would apply to the new fee-paying canal.

Would Turkey establish new rules other than those that apply to the Bosporus to the new canal? Would it accept military traffic and under what conditions? Would the Montreux Convention apply?

How would the balance of military power apply as Russia builds an ever-stronger presence in the Black Sea after its annexation of Crimea and has unilaterally restricted traffic in the Sea of Azov to the detriment of Ukraine?

The Istanbul Canal raises complex international issues that affect the navies of countries that border the Black Sea. Those include Ukraine, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Georgia, some of which are NATO members and others of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation. The United Nations would inevitably be drawn into the fray.

Turkey is throwing its weight around well beyond its frontiers but this pet project of Erdogan seems difficult to carry off without international consultations. It is far from clear how it would be funded. Turkey’s budget deficit increased 70% last year to $21 billion and joint private-public sector financing would be very difficult because private investors, notably from abroad, might find it difficult to fork out money for a canal that could be bitterly opposed not only by the mayor of Istanbul but by a number of international actors.