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Is the Istanbul Canal Erdogan’s personal or Turkey’s national project?

April 16, 2021 at 9:23 am

The road that overlooks the Sazlodere dam is pictured on 12 June 2018 at the small coastal village of Karaburun, near Istanbul [YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images]

At the end of March 2021, Turkey announced the approval of plans for constructing the Istanbul Canal, which will connect the Black Sea north of Istanbul to the Sea of Marmara to the south, with an estimated cost of 75 billion liras ($9.2 billion). This will be one of the largest infrastructure projects not only in Turkey, but globally too.

“Canal Istanbul will serve as an international waterway that will complement Turkey’s logistics power and infrastructure by performing an important function in global maritime trade,” expressed Turkey’s Transport and Infrastructure Minister Adil Karaismailoğlu. “It is now a very short time before the construction of the Canal Istanbul begins,” he added.

The 45-kilometre-long (31 miles) canal is planned to be built west of the city centre on the European side of Istanbul, dividing the city of 15 million residents. With a depth of 20.75 metres (68.1 ft), a width of 360 metres (1,180 ft) on the surface and 275 metres (902 ft) wide at the bottom, the massive waterway is projected to have a capacity of 160 vessel transits per day. It is bypassing the Bosphorus waterway, which is often congested and poses environmental threats to Istanbul.

The Trade Winds has reported that the Istanbul Canal plan is the most ambitious in a series of infrastructure projects that have transformed the Turkish Straits since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party won power in 2003. The Turkish government has affirmed that the canal would ease shipping traffic on the Bosphorus, one of the busiest maritime passages in the world, and would prevent accidents similar to the recent incident in Egypt’s Suez Canal.

In relation to the huge demand on Turkish waterways, the National Geographic explained: “Thousands of oil tankers make up part of the 53,000 civilian and military vessels that transited through the Bosphorus in 2017, compared to around 12,000 ships that transited the Panama Canal, and 17,000 the Suez Canal.”

Speaking at the Presidential National Library in Ankara on Wednesday, President Erdoğan claimed that the Istanbul Canal mega-project would result in greater peace of mind for the Turkish nation. “We are bringing about work through which we will establish our own independence, our own sovereignty in full measure,” he avowed, according to Anadolu Agency.

Erdogan: Turkey ready to dig major canal

The project is expected to generate 20,000 new jobs during the construction and after the completion of the canal. According to the Directorate of Communication in the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey, it will bring new mega-projects that will afford an encouraging atmosphere for investors, solving the traffic congestion and ending environmental concerns. However, there are many critics of the project, such as Istanbul’s Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, who says he has 15 reasons to oppose Erdoğan’s canal project.

“Canal Istanbul is not a project of betrayal, but a murder project,” İmamoğlu asserted. “It is a disaster project against the existence of 16 million (people in Istanbul) and the security of 82 million (Turkish citizens).” One of the reasons for his opposition, he explains, is the possible water shortage that the canal could cause. “If the project is realised, Istanbul, which has been existing for 8,500 years, will lose both its under and aboveground water sources. Let alone the other 14 reasons, this reason on its own stipulates shelving the project,” İmamoğlu explained.

He also stressed that the canal could trigger the risk of an earthquake in the city and have economic consequences on citizens as it will lead to more taxes. Among other reasons, he said, the canal project will violate the Montreux Convention, which “protects Turkey and countries bordering the Black Sea” and indicates that its impact will violate seven more international agreements.

Canal Istanbul project's map [Wikipedia]

Canal Istanbul project’s map [Wikipedia]

Some supposed experts suggest that the project could have serious ecological consequences. “We actually call these ‘ecocide’ projects,” says Cihan Baysal, an academic who studies urban development in Turkey and is a member of the Northern Forests Defence, a group of environmental activists in Istanbul.

It seems as though all of these claimed concerns stem from political, or possibly religious, disagreements between the people raising them and Turkey’s ruling party. Turkish officials have made clear that all concerns raised by the oppositionists, and many others beyond them, had been addressed during more than a decade of deliberation and studies by experts and specialists.

Turkish journalist Hamza Tekin informed me that 204 Turkish experts and scientists had worked on the consultations, planning and preparations for the project. “On 27 March, 2018,” he said, “the project was put for discussion by 507 public and private institutions, and all of them gave their opinions about it before giving a final decision recommending carrying out this sovereign project.”

Turkish Environment and Urbanisation Minister Murat Kurum stated that his ministry had approved the project, stressing: “The ministry approached the air, water, forests, soil, green areas, lakes, sea and ecological balance of Istanbul with a strategy to protect the environment and nature.” He confirmed that academics, environmental specialists, institutions and NGOs had presented their opinions and consultations on the matter.

READ: Turkey detains 10 ex-navy officers over criticism of Istanbul Canal project

Regarding the environment, Tekin added: “The project will afford 4.67 million square metres of forests, 86.7 square metres of green spaces, parks, squares and green playgrounds.”

Concerning the violation of the Montreux Convention and other international agreements, Turkish officials made it very clear that the canal project does not aim to touch the Montreux Convention. However, this convention does not fully address Turkey’s rights relating to its own straits, as well as not respecting its sovereignty.

“The Canal Istanbul project, which has nothing to do with the Montreux Convention, will bring Turkey greater comfort and peace,” Erdoğan maintains. “We are bringing about work through which we will establish our own independence, our own sovereignty in full measure.”

Erdoğan and his party did not hide the intention to dissolve the convention. A reporter asked Turkish Parliament Chairman Mustafa Şentop whether Erdoğan “might dissolve the Montreux Convention,” he replied, “Technically, yes.”

On the issue of dissolving the convention, Erdoğan stated: “If such a need presents itself in the future, we will not hesitate to review every convention to introduce a better one for our country, and we will open them to international discussion.”

Despite the ongoing controversy regarding this project and the instability hitting the Turkish lira, the Turkish economy is still stable and not based on stolen wealth or other nations’ property, like many other great powers around the globe. The Istanbul Canal is part of a series of major projects carried out by the Justice and Development Party, which turned Turkey from a debtor state to a creditor state, and raised the GDP per capita from $4,760 in 2003 to $9,126 in 2019. This proves that Erdoğan’s dream is not personal, but national.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.