On The Ground

Turkey's 'crazy' and controversial Istanbul Canal project

Anchored ships wait in the Sea of Marmara before sailing through the Bosphorus Strait on route to the Black Sea, April 23, 2021.
Anchored ships wait in the Sea of Marmara before sailing through the Bosphorus Strait on route to the Black Sea, April 23, 2021. © Ozan Kose, AFP

By laying the first stone of the Sazlidere bridge, one of six viaducts that will cross the Istanbul Canal, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan kicked off on Saturday what he himself calls his "crazy project", the construction of a canal between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, despite low enthusiasm from the Turkish public. 


During Saturday’s ceremony on the Sazlidere construction site, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan placed special emphasis on the historical nature of his outsized project.

"This is not a ceremony to inaugurate a fountain," he told a crowd of supporters including Transport and Industry Minister Adil Karaismailoglu and members of his party, the AKP.

The Turkish president rattled off a series of numbers and hammered home his message: six bridges; 45 kilometres long; 21 metres deep; 30 times safer than the Bosphorus; 90 percent less traffic; six years of construction; a $15 billion budget…

The Bosphorus Strait sees too much traffic, Erdogan said. Ships must wait days at times before crossing it, the passage is difficult to navigate for large cargo ships and can lead to accidents, and the only solution is to find another route.

He optimistically believes the Istanbul Canal will allow his country to take a greater role on the international stage of world commerce and host a larger part of maritime traffic.

Considered the jewel in the crown of a long list of mega-projects launched since he came to power 19 years ago, the president vows this projects will be a source of pride for the Turkish people, a new wonder that will draw the envy of the world.

But public opinion in the country is singing a different tune, especially in Istanbul. Despite Erdogan’s efforts to place himself as the enterprising successor of Mehmet II the Conqueror – did the sultan not go as far as to "carry his ships over land" when he took Constantinople in 1453? – the project is encountering fierce public resistance.

A disaster for environment

Though Erdogan claims he is backed by research studies, environmental experts are skeptical. First, because the canal will be dug in a wooded area, home to fresh-water sources that have been linked to the city’s water supply system since the 17th century. It’s one of the reasons why the current Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu, of centre-right opposition party CHP, is against the project: 40 percent of the city’s water comes from the European side of the economic capital, site of the future canal.

Second, environmental consequence could be even more destabilising, as the new canal is likely to upset the natural equilibrium of currents and counter-currents between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Certain specialists predict that the artificial canal will act like a siphon, sucking in the polluted waters of the Black Sea that will ultimately end up in the Mediterranean.

But the president is turning a blind eye to such objections. For him, the canal is "the most eco-friendly project in the world". He believes that by freeing up the Bosphorus, the new maritime passage will be beneficial for the Sea of Marmara’s ecosystem, which has recently seen a worrying proliferation of "sea-snot". Here again, experts don’t see eye to eye with Erdogan. They believe the Sea of Marmara could become even more polluted with the construction of an artificial passage.

Questionable financial model

In the nearly two decades that Erdogan has been in office, he has radically changed the landscape of his country, notably through infrastructure development including highways, tunnels, bridges, dams and airports.

During his speech this Saturday, the president gave the example of the Osman Ghazi Bridge, which crosses the Gulf of Izmir and takes drivers to a highway connected to the coastal Mediterranean city. It's a project that was financed much like the Istanbul Canal is set to be, and that is far from a success.

Backed by encouraging studies, the government had launched the project with the guarantee that the company operating the bridge would see a certain number of toll payments. But in 2020 the Turkish treasury paid the Otoyol Yaririm A.S. company more than three billion Turkish lira (€28 million), after the actual number of toll payments proved far lower than was stipulated in the contract.

With regard to canal traffic, the minister of transport and infrastructure told CNN Turk on Saturday: "Of course there will be a guaranteed number of ship passages, Turkey is one of the countries in the world that best employs this financial model."

The guaranteed number of passages is based on encouraging studies. A report commissioned by the ministry of transport and infrastructure predicts that in 2026, 54,900 ships will sail through the new canal, with that number rising to 68,000 in 2039 – a stark reversal of current tendencies. Over the last decade, the number of vessels going through the Bosphorus fell from 53,000 to 38,000 a year, due to an increased number of pipelines and a decreased dependence on fossil fuels in certain countries.

Free passage through Bosphorus 

But some observers say that, far from rising, the number of passages is set to continue to fall. Furthermore the passage through the Bosphorus, despite the dangers and long wait lines, will remain free of charge, unlike the new canal.

Erdogan may claim that his project "won’t cost a cent" for the taxpayer and "will reimburse itself", but an opinion poll published in April showed more than 60 percent of responders disagreed with the clause guaranteeing a certain number of passages.

Faced with opposition from the Turkish public and Turkish banks that claim they aren’t willing to take the risk, Erdogan has gone as far as to defend foreign banks that are ready to finance his project. But foreign countries aren’t hopping on the bandwagon either.

Russia, in particular, is not convinced of the benefits of the Istanbul Canal, as it fears the new canal would allow NATO vessels a more direct route to the Black Sea.

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