In September 2010, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was on the phone to a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Sabah when he disclosed an idea for what he called a “crazy project” . The project is a new 45 kilometre shipping canal running just west of Istanbul’s two airports on the outskirts of the city, from the Black Sea in the north to the Marmara Sea in the south. Once complete, the Istanbul Canal will turn the entire European side of Turkish city (which is already split on one side by the Bosphorus Strait) into an island.
With a draft, or maximum depth for ships, of 17 metres, width of 275 metres and a length of 45 kilometres, Canal Istanbul would become one of the largest and busiest shipping canals in the world. The $15 billion megaproject is also expected to displace thousands of people living on the outskirts of Istanbul to make room for what would become one of the largest maritime engineering projects of all time. But its construction has been mired in controversy, with everyone from environmental scientists to Turkish banks and opposition parties saying it will be an environmental disaster, cost a fortune and risk sparking tensions with Russia. On June 26, ground was broken on one of the bridges across the planned route of Canal Istanbul, restarting fierce debates about the project.
The Turkish government argues that Canal Istanbul could be a faster alternative to the Bosphorus Strait, where ships currently have to wait an average of 14 hours to enter, and could be a source of income for the Turkish government. Unlike the Suez or Panama canals, the Turkish government is restricted by international law from charging lucrative tolls on ships using the Bosporus Strait. A new canal could siphon off some of the roughly 40,000 cargo ships that use the Strait each year (far more than the roughly 19,000 using the Suez Canal), not to mention 2,000 daily crossings of civilian ships. It could also relieve congestion on the Bosphorus Strait, which has been the site of more than 461 maritime incidents since the 1950s.
The logistics of the project are epic but simple. Fundamentally, building a canal like this is simply about moving earth, explains Nicholas Pansic, vice-president of power and dams at engineering company Stantec. Pansic previously worked as a deputy design manager on a project to substantially increase the size and capacity of the Panama Canal, which was finished in 2016. Regardless of where a canal is built, they generally follow a similar pattern, he explains. After planning the route, crews begin excavating from the middle in opposite directions towards the sea entrances at either side, beginning with dry excavation, before going deeper and dredging and excavating the lowest parts of the dam that fall below the water table. At either end, they leave an “earth dam” between the canal and the sea, which is then removed as the final stage by blasting to allow water to flow in.
The Istanbul Canal wants to attract the world's largest shipping vessels — some of which fit over 20,000 containers on board — but the bigger engineers make the waterway, the more problems they will encounter. That’s only made worse by how unprecedented the work is, says Wojtek Fijalkowski, an expert on bridge building and tunnel excavation at Independent Design House Ltd. For example, the deeper they go below the water table, the more they will need labour-intensive dredging as dirt shifts into wet silt. “Getting into the dredging and the removal of earth or rock underwater is more challenging than working just in the dry,” Pansic explains. “And it’s exponentially more difficult to go deeper because you have more uncertainty as to the ground conditions and stability.” New technology that makes excavating at depth easier, like GPS-enabled hydraulic dredging machines that track where they are and what material they’re moving. But Pansic says that can only have so much of an impact.
But building a giant canal isn’t just about moving earth, it also means moving what’s on top of that earth – and that’s where the problems begin. The project’s Environmental Impact Assessment states that around 201,000 trees will have to be cut down from an already heavily deforested country to make way for the canal. The route of the Canal will completely envelop the Salizdere Dam, a major water source for the city of Istanbul, as well as running so close to the Terkos Lake, another major water source, that it will likely be contaminated with sea water and become undrinkable. The two account for around a quarter of Istanbul’s drinking water. The city of around 16 million people already has to pipe in water from sources 189 kilometres away to keep up with demand.
As the seas meet around the city, the 30 centimetre water height difference between the Marmara and Black seas will also be problematic. Water would consistently flow one way from the Black Sea to the Marmara through the canal – and it also has a far lower salinity and much higher levels of organic content. The impact of mixing the two could risk the Marmara Sea becoming deoxygenated, creating bacteria-induced sulphurous gases that would make Istanbul smell of rotten eggs.
So big is the project that much of the impact can’t even be calculated. “There are so many unknowns, this is not a mathematical equation,” explains Akgün İlhan, a water management expert from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. “But we are sure there will be some really bad consequences. They are messing with things that they don’t know."
The dangers it poses are only worsened by the fact that the entire region is already facing an array of environmental crises. The Marmara Sea already has to deal with astronomical levels of water pollution and habitat destruction caused by dumping from the 24 million people who live around it, and is two degrees warmer now than 20 years previously as a result of climate change. Those factors have created a viral spread of dangerous marine mucilage – or sea snot – that has not only covered an unprecedented amount of the sea but has grown to a depth of up to 100 metres. “There is a certain threshold that any ecosystem can carry, when you cross that threshold you don’t know what will happen,” says İlhan. “When you add another problem to this mountain of problems, the Marmara Sea will become a dead zone.”
Experts also fear that the Istanbul Canal will make the city more susceptible than it already is to earthquakes, forest fires and droughts. The entire country, whose president refuses to join the Paris Agreement on climate change or implement widespread climate policies or protections, is already in crisis. “We are living in an irreversible environmental disaster,” says Deniz Bayram, an environmental lawyer based in Turkey. “Canal Istanbul will deepen it.”
Engineers say there are ways to mitigate the kind of environmental impacts the project could have. Having lock gates at the entrance and exit of the canal could reduce the flow of water from one sea to another, for example, while impervious canal lining can also help stop salt water seeping into nearby freshwater aquifers. But many of those measures are likely to slow down the traffic through the canal, which goes against the government’s plan to offer fast-track shipping.
While officials have said they will replant the trees set to be deforested, critics argue that many other options are not being considered. “It was almost impossible that the minister of the environment would decline this project after the government showed ownership over it,” says Bayram, who is currently taking the government to court over its failure to adequately consider environmental concerns related to the project. She claims the ministry has approved 95 per cent of all proposed infrastructure projects over the last decade. The Turkish government did not respond to a request for comment.
Then there’s timescale; not only do bigger projects take longer but delays are more impactful. The current estimate for the project is seven years – one and a half years to finish the tendering and financing process for the canal, then five and half years for construction of the main canal. “Part of the challenge is that physically it takes a long time to do these projects,” says Pansic. “In that time, governments change, people’s attitudes change, technology changes.”
If the government can solve these issues, it will still face another problem: money. With Turkey’s national banks shying away from backing the canal over concerns about its environmental impact and financial returns, finding the capital to complete it will be a huge challenge. “In the short term it's not a very economically viable project,” says Tuba Eldem, a fellow at the Centre for Applied Turkish Studies at the Institute for International and Security Affairs. “This is a high cost that the Turkish economy can’t bear at the moment because Turkey is suffering from a debt crisis and a double digit inflation.” Some economists have also warned it could end up costing twice as much as predicted. Currently there is an expectation the project could receive outside foreign funding from Dutch or Belgian banks, or from the Chinese as part of the Belt and Road Initiative – especially as they already maintain a $940 million interest in one of Istanbul’s main shipping terminals.
But few things are certain and, despite already having more than a year to secure financing, nothing has been confirmed. On top of that, doubts have been raised over the government’s estimate of $1bn a year in fees from ships using the canal – especially as in recent years, the number of ships using the Bosphorus dropped from 54,400 to 41,100 a year — showing a wane in demand. The government has suggested that another source of revenue will be real estate development around the planned route of the canal, to the sum of an estimated $10.5bn. Current proposals include building two smart cities along the route of the canal. Environmental experts fear that the already worsening overpopulation and water crisis in Istanbul would only be worsened if entire new cities are built.
Then there’s the politics. The Turkish government has hinted that the new waterway wouldn’t be subject to the Montreux Convention, a 1936 treaty which limits the number of military naval vessels that can traverse the Bosphorus Strait. The convention means Russia maintains military dominance over the Black Sea by limiting entry for American ships, but if the new route were not subject to the same rules, it risks sparking worsening tensions in the region and even a naval arms race between America and Russia. In April, ten retired Turkish admirals were arrested on charges of treason for publicly criticising the Istanbul Canal project. Once completed, Turkey would have the power to control whose warships can traverse from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, explains Eldem, which would be a huge bargaining chip for the country in any negotiations with foreign powers, even if it risks a deterioration in geopolitical stability.
And critics see ulterior motives behind Erdoğan’s dedication to the project, beyond just growing his geopolitical influence. The short-term financial boost from land sales is seen as an election bribe by opposition parties, and has garnered accusations of corruption after it was revealed Erdoğan’s own son-in-law has invested in land. The canal is also just one of many megaprojects launched by Erdoğan – including one of the world’s largest suspension bridges and one of the world’s biggest airports, seen by many as an attempt to assert his authority and secure his long-term legacy.
As the arguments rumble on, support from the Turkish people continues to fall. The expansion of the Panama Canal that Pansic worked on went to a public referendum in 2006 long before work began, with over 80 per cent of the population showing support. In Turkey almost all polling suggests that the opposite is the case – in one case with 80 per cent of Istanbul residents opposed the project.
Erdoğan’s political opponents have all said they will not respect any state loans offered for the project if they win power in the 2023 election – an election where, for the first time, Erdoğan and his AK Party are at risk of losing power. If that happens – and it remains a big if – then what little funding there is will likely vanish alongside all political impetus to forge ahead with the project. “In my experience the biggest issue with projects like this is not construction,” says Fijalkowski. “It’s that the funding runs out.”
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