Istanbul Canal: why Turkey needs new infrastructure megaproject?
Turkey is moving further in implementing the Istanbul Canal. The artificial artery will provide an alternative way for vessels sailing between the Black and Marmara Sea. Is the project realistic?
In the past decade, Turkey completed two significant infrastructure megaprojects: Marmaray Tunnel and Istanbul Airport. The former has already contributed to the intensification of the rail freight traffic between China and Europe while the latter will allow Istanbul to keep its role as a major aviation hub in Eurasia. However, the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is planning to implement another megaproject related to the shipping industry.
It is the Istanbul Canal (Kanal Istanbul) that will provide an alternative and additional to the Bosporus Strait way for the vessels sailing to or from the Black Sea. On Saturday, 30 June, an official event dedicated to launching the project was held. “This is not a fountain opening ceremony. Today we are laying the foundations of one of the exemplary canals in the world,” said the President of Turkey. As for the timeframe, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan intends to construct the canal in six years. He declared this term several times: first during the official ceremony on 26 June, then at a weekly parliamentary group meeting on 30 June. “We will speedily begin the excavation of the canal. Our objective is to complete it in six years,” he noted.
The idea of an alternative to the Bosporus Strait route is not new. For instance, in early 2010s, Russian Railways was planning to create a railway corridor between the ports of Burgas in Bulgaria and Alexandroupolis in Greece. This attempt failed but Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proposed its own vision of the new transport artery: to build a maritime canal similar to those in Egypt and Panama. The planned 45-kilometre-long canal will be placed westwards from Istanbul. It will suitable for vessels with a length of up to 350 metres, a maximum beam of 77.5 metres and a draft of 17 metres. According to the preliminary estimations, the project will cost around 15 billion US dollars.
Thinking about future
Turkey and its officials usually mention at least three main causes to implement the canal project. The first one is the growing ship traffic via the Bosporus and Dardanelles. Thus, around 3,000 ships sailed via the straits in 1931 and 41,000 ships in 2019. “Projections show that this number will reach 78,000 in 2050 … The passage of each large ship poses a danger to the city. In the Bosporus, there is heavy traffic of ships of all classes and capacities, both in North-South and East-West directions,” the President of Turkey said at the mentioned ceremony.
The second reason is related to the international status of the Bosporus and Dardanelles defined by the 1936 Motreux Convention. It limits the usage of the straits for the military ships to enter the Black Sea during the wartime. If the canal is completed, Turkey will get more opportunities to bypass the convention. And the third reason is the development of the nearby areas. Two residential neighbourhoods for 500,000 people each will be built on the two banks of the canal.
In spite of obvious benefits for shipping, there is some criticism of the project. The first issue is financial. The Turkish government did not disclose the sources of funds to implement the project. 15 billion dollars is a huge amount and who will allocate them is still unclear. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once implied that it could be a state funding. Meanwhile, the opposition politicians believe that Turkey will not construct the canal without credits. Therefore, Meral Akşener, the leader of the İYİ Party, said that the project will cause the odious debts for Turkey.
The second issue is related to the negative consequences for the environment. First of all, many ecologists warn that the canal will destroy the ecosystem of the Marmara Sea. For instance, cellular organisms will flow into the Marmara and will eat oxygen in the sea. Another dimension of the issue is the future of water supply in the city of Istanbul. Terkos Lake and Sazlıdere reservoir, which provide a quarter of drinking water to the Turkish largest city, will be at risk.
Meanwhile, the megaproject itself could be also jeopardised as the opposition parties require from the government to carry out a referendum on the Istanbul Canal. Therefore, the following months will be crucial: whether the constructions works will take place on the sites or the Turkish government will postpone its plans as it had already happened several times before.