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Istanbul Canal: Erdogan's dream, Istanbul's nightmare

Daniel Bellut
January 1, 2020

Turkey's President Erdogan wants to create a second Bosporus. The cost to the economy and environment would be enormous — and that's why Istanbul's mayor is attempting to stop the plan. A bitter power struggle is raging.

Türkei Istanbul - Bosporus Kanal
Image: Getty Images/C. McGrath

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is well known for his penchant for gigantic construction projects in Istanbul. Be it a new airport, Turkey's largest mosque or a tunnel that goes under the Bosporus — he has built it all within a short time. But these objects of prestige are nothing compared to his latest construction project: The Istanbul Canal.

The Turkish government is planning nothing short of the creation of a second Bosporus — a copy of the strait that meanders through the middle of the 16-million metropolis of Istanbul. To the west of the city, the artificial 45-kilometer canal is to be built parallel to the Bosporus, linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. According to government sources, the intention is to relieve the heavy shipping traffic on the Bosporus and to avoid accidents.

Map Istanbul Canal planned route

Planning for the project began as early as 2011, then stagnated for years. But now the Turkish government has brought the plans to life again. Erdogan announced that the tender for the canal construction will soon begin. The Ministry for Environment and Urban Development has examined the environmental compatibility of the construction project and assessed it as "positive."

Opposition from Mayor Imamoglu

But the realization of Erdogan's latest mega-construction project is being hampered by a shift in the balance of power in the Bosporus metropolis in June. Since then, Social Democrat Ekrem Imamoglu of CHP has been mayor — marking the first time in 25 years that Istanbul's mayor is not part of Erdogan's AKP party. And the city's newest leader has made his opposition to the planned construction known. 

Imamoglu calls the project a "betrayal of Istanbul" and a "murder project," and vows that "16 million people will resist." He also took political action by terminating a protocol of cooperation that the previous municipality had agreed with the government.

Istanbul's Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu
Istanbul's Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu is a staunch opponent of Erdogan's canal projectImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/L. Pitarakis

The rejection by Istanbul's mayor, but also of city residents and scientists, is mainly due to the high construction costs and considerable environmental concerns.

The project could have a significant impact on the region's nature, says environmental expert Doganay Tolunay of Istanbul University. The canal will consume important water resources because Istanbul's water reserves will be stored where it is planned to run. The canal also endangers the region's complex ecosystem. "The dune landscapes in the north of the city are home to protected forests, streams and pastures that are important for the ecosystem and are home to hundreds of species of plants and animals," warns Tolunay. A serious disturbance of the ecosystem could possibly have economic consequences. "Fishermen in the Black Sea and farmers would have to leave the region," he said. 

Mega-project with mega-costs

Added to this are the enormous construction expenses. Officially, the equivalent of €11.5 billion ($12.9 billion) is being talked about. But experts expect the costs for the new canal to be much higher. The largest opposition party, CHP, has criticized the project as being carried out "on the back of the taxpayer."

Izmir Türkei Turkish citizens with papers against government's water canal plan
Concerned citizens petition against the Istanbul Canal project in Izmir in December 2019Image: DHA

"The project lacks any economic rationality," says economist Mustafa Sönmez, adding that the Bosporus already guarantees good conditions for shipping and allows sufficient passage.

Earthquake risk?

Critics warn that the canal could have a negative impact on the tectonic fault lines that are deep beneath Istanbul's soil, such as increasing the risk of earthquakes. The Agency for Disaster and Emergency Management, however, disagrees — saying there is no connection between earthquake risks and the construction of the canal. But the statement has done little to convince many city dwellers.

Their fear is highlighted by Imamoglu. He claims that a kind of island is being created between the canal and the Bosporus, with 8 million people "trapped" in an earthquake-prone area by this island location.

Bospororus view
Critics say there is enough space for shipping traffic on the BosporusImage: picture alliance/prisma

The mayor of Istanbul also criticizes the fact that plots of land along the canal have already been sold to Arab investors, including members of royal families. Erdogan's response: "Is that forbidden? If it were Hans and George, nobody would have a problem with it."

'The canal is being built'

Leaders within Erdogan's AKP party repeatedly point out that the construction project is not in the remit of Mayor Imamoglu nor Istanbul's city administration, insisting that the Istanbul Canal is a national project — not a local one. 

For years, Erdogan has described the project as his "dream" — and he shows no signs of relenting to skeptics. "Whether they like it or not, Istanbul Canal is being built," Erdogan says.

"We will not allow people without a vision, who have no goals, no love and hope for our country, to dissuade us from doing so," he vows. "We will never engage with the opposition's malicious agenda because we don't want to waste a single second."

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