The new canal through Istanbul is a prestigious project by Turkish President Erdogan. Despite the corona pandemic, the government is pushing ahead with the plans. But the opposition mayor warns of a "disaster" for the metropolis.
Istanbul (dpa) - Blue and glittering, the canal winds its way through Istanbul, houses stand in gardens on the shore, sailing boats and catamarans bob in a marina. Eight bridges over and one subway under the canal are to be built. A male voice accompanied by music speaks of a new era.
The Turkish Ministry of the Environment has released the video, which illustrates the "Istanbul Canal" - an artificial waterway from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, west of the famous Bosphorus Strait. Construction is expected to begin soon, cost 75 billion Turkish liras (around one billion euros) and be completed in seven years.
The canal is a prestige project by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan - one that he describes as "crazy". He means that positively. The oppositional mayor of Istanbul and Erdogan rival Ekrem Imamoglu, however, compares the video with a "Hollywood film". He wants to prevent construction. The mayor, otherwise known for his deliberate rhetoric, chooses drastic words. The project is a "disaster" for Istanbul, a "betrayal" and "murder" of the 16 million metropolis.
Experts warn of irreparable damage to the Istanbul ecosystem and that drinking water resources would be endangered. Critics also accuse the government of having tendered for the work on the bridges that will cross the canal in the middle of the Corona crisis. It is driving the project forward, although the pandemic will have negative consequences for the already troubled economy. Last but not least, the channel is also a projection screen for a power struggle between Erdogan and Imamoglu, which some already consider to be a possible presidential candidate.
Erdogan had put the topic "Canal Istanbul" on the agenda in 2011, at that time as Prime Minister. The waterway is part of a series of ambitious infrastructure projects for Istanbul. The third bridge over the Bosphorus and the mega airport in the north of the city have already been completed. They are to be connected to the future canal by a motorway.
A yacht and a container port are also planned, and a new city is to be built on the canal, according to the government with around 500,000 inhabitants. Gürkan Akgün, head of the city's office for construction and urban planning, criticizes the fact that an "island" is being created in Istanbul, which is at risk of earthquakes, between the Bosphorus and the new, parallel canal. In an emergency, this would make evacuation and logistical support more difficult, he warns. The north of Istanbul should actually not be built on anyway, that was laid down in a so-called master plan in 2009.
The city administration has filed a lawsuit and collected signatures against the canal. Mayor Imamoglu, who has been in office for around a year, has little influence on the project. Turkey is organized by the central government: Ankara decides. In addition, the city parliament is dominated by Erdogan's ruling party AKP. Erdogan always makes it clear who he thinks is in charge in the country. Already at the end of December, he made it clear to Imamoglu: "You don't decide on the Istanbul Canal, the power to decide about it lies with me."
The controversial waterway is said to be 45 kilometers long and 275 meters wide at its narrowest point, making it longer and narrower than the Bosphorus, which is about 27 kilometers long and 698 meters wide at its narrowest point. The government argues that the "Istanbul Canal" is essential to relieve the Bosphorus. Shipping traffic there is continuously increasing. While an average of 50,000 ships currently cross the Bosphorus annually, it could be around 86,000 in 2070, according to the estimate in the environmental impact report.
The opposition opposes this, saying that shipping traffic has decreased in the past ten years. According to statistics from the Directorate for Coastal Security, around 51,400 ships crossed the Bosphorus in 2009, compared to around 41,100 in 2019 - but they were getting bigger and heavier.
The free passage for merchant ships in peacetime through the Bosphorus is regulated in the Montreux Treaty of 1936. Even if ships could not be obliged to use the new channel - which should cost fees - the government is confident. Environment and City Minister Murat Kurum said in December that shipping companies would prefer the new waterway because they could avoid waiting times. In 2019, ships should have waited about 14 hours before accessing the Bosphorus, he said. Tankers with dangerous loads even 30 hours. For Kurum, the "Istanbul Canal" is a project that "protects" the Bosphorus. Especially container ships with dangerous cargo are a security risk.
In January Imamoglu and his team drummed up experts, media representatives and citizens for a workshop on the canal. The mayor accused the government of planning a project that was based on "concrete and yield" but was not economical. Imamoglu also warned of the loss of forest, arable land and water resources.
The "Istanbul Canal" is said to run through two water reservoirs: the Sazlidere Dam and part of Lake Terkos. According to the city, the two reservoirs cover around a third of Istanbul's water supply. Sazlidere lies in the middle of green meadows, shepherds let their animals graze there, street dogs stray on the shore. A large part of the lake is planned to be destroyed. Lake Terkos remains intact, but experts such as Selahattin Beyaz from the Istanbul Chamber of Environmental Engineers warn that the water could become polluted and the groundwater could become saline.
According to the city's water authority, water consumption in Istanbul averaged around 2.8 million cubic meters per day in 2019. The government argues that the Melen dam in the east of Istanbul's Sakarya province covers the city's needs many times over. City planner Akgün still considers the canal project to be "very risky". Despite the climate crisis and at a time of declining sources of drinking water and rainfall, such plans are being made, he criticizes.
The prominent marine researcher and critic of the canal, Cemal Saydam, warns that the delicate ecological balance of the Sea of Marmara will be destroyed by the new inflow. Additional biomass will be mined and harmful hydrogen sulfide will be released - Istanbul will smell like rotten eggs, he predicts.
Despite all the warnings, Erdogan is sticking to the plan. He calls the channel "a world-class work". "For Turkey it is inappropriate to think small and act small," he says to doubters and critics.
Cemal Saydam on the channel's influence on the Sea of Marmara
Course of the channel at Anadolu
Istanbul Channel video