The Canal (Kanal) Istanbul project envisions an artificial 45-kilometer canal that runs parallel to the Bosphorus to the west of the city, linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Photo ErhanDemirtas / NurPhoto via AFP

To its supporters, it means investment, jobs and safety for Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. To its critics, it means an eco-catastrophe, a waste of precious funds and a threat to one of the most important treaties underscoring the country’s security.

‘Kanal Istanbul’ – a scheme to dig a 45-kilometer long channel between the Black Sea coast and the Marmara Sea – is undoubtedly Turkey’s most polarizing project, running close to many of the country’s political fault lines, as well as its geological ones.

Yet, despite this division, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is determined to go ahead with the scheme – launching the first tenders late last month.

Ankara is also now targeting the Middle East and Asia to provide much of the funding, too, with China and Qatar widely reported likely to take leading roles.

Indeed, accompanying a glossy video commercial in Arabic released on April 8, Erdogan’s top spokesman, Fahrettin Altun, tweeted: “Once again, we underline that Kanal Istanbul, Turkey’s most prestigious project, is big and strong.”

Also big and strong, though, is the project’s financing needs – particularly at a time when Turkey is going through a protracted economic crisis, deepened by fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

With a new, canal-side city of about one million people also part of the plan – along with dozens of bridges and highways, marinas and malls – a 2018 estimate from the Turkish Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure put the eventual cost at some US$20 billion.

An Infographic with the title ‘Turkey unveils Canal Istanbul Project route,’ created on January 15, 2018, in Ankara, Turkey. Photo: AFP/Murat Usubaliev/Anadolu Agency

An additional price, too, is the environmental damage, with the canal due to pass through some of Greater Istanbul’s most precious remaining green areas.

According to the Istanbul Municipality – which strongly opposes the project – some 200,000 trees will be felled, 136 million square meters of agricultural land will be destroyed and 33 million cubic meters of the city’s water supply will be disrupted by the canal.

“We have warned the government, ‘don’t do this’,” Akif Burak Atlar, chair of the Chamber of Urban Planners Istanbul Branch, told Asia Times. “It will be very bad for Istanbul’s future – a disaster across the whole area.”

At the same time, there is a major question mark, too, over who will use the canal, given that just a few kilometers southeast there is a well-used, free alternative – the Bosphorus strait.

Difficult navigation

For millennia, ships have sailed that narrow watercourse, winding through the heart of Istanbul between the Black and Marmara seas.

Usage of the Bosphorus is governed by the 1936 Treaty of Montreux, which sets the internationally agreed rules for the ‘Turkish straits’ – generally seen as the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, which then links the Marmara to the Aegean.

Montreux restricts the passage of warships through these straits, while guaranteeing free passage for civilian vessels, during peacetime.

“Turkey cannot charge merchant ships a fee to use the straits,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey Program at the Washington Institute, told Asia Times, “or even insist on them using a pilot during transit.”

Use of a pilot is highly recommended, too, as the Bosphorus contains several sharp turns and many strong currents – narrowing at one point to only 550 meters.

People enjoy the sunset on the shore of the Golden Horn inlet, connected with the Bosphorus Strait, with the Metro bridge in the background at Karakoy district in Istanbul, on April 7, 2021. Photo by Ozan Kose / AFP

In the past, the channel has seen a number of major collisions and groundings, along with ships even ramming waterfront houses.

The worst accident was in 1979, when an oil tanker collided with a freighter, causing an explosion and fire that killed 42 people.

“The Bosphorus is really Istanbul’s high street,” Cagaptay says. “There is clearly a need to regulate it, particularly when you get dangerous cargoes transiting.”

Advocates of Kanal Istanbul point to safety as a major reason for building this alternative route, as it would remove potentially dangerous traffic from the heart of the city.

Critics, however, say that passage of dangerous cargoes has fallen in recent years, as pipelines have been built to ship flammable gasses and liquids.

In addition, “given there is no way for Turkey to direct ships to use the canal, where they will be charged a fee,” adds Cagaptay, “how is the canal ever going to be profitable?”

The answer may well lie not in the arguments over Montreux and shipping safety, but in quite another place altogether.

“The Kanal,” Mehmet Ogutcu, a former Turkish ambassador and CEO of Global Resources Partnership, told Asia Times, “really has to be seen primarily as a real estate project.”

Real estate advertising offers apartments and houses with a view of the canal in the small coastal village of Karaburun, near Istanbul. Much of the land along the proposed route has changed hands. Photo: AFP/Yasin Akgul

Speculative investments

Since Erdogan first announced Kanal Istanbul, back at an election rally in 2011, its prospective route has been the subject of some intense land deals.

An investigation earlier this month by Turkish newspaper Yenicag revealed that of the 30 million square meters of land covered by the project, 26.7 million square meters had changed hands since 2013.

“If you look at the plans for the project,” says Ogutcu, “there are beautiful villas, yacht harbors, restaurants and so on all along the canal. Land for these has been bought at a low price by Saudi, Qatari investors, along with wealthy Turks, so they now have an interest in being able to sell it on for a high one.”

At the same time, the project could provide a short-term shot in the arm for the Turkish economy, while the jobs it would create could give President Erdogan and the AKP a boost ahead of the crucial 2023 elections.

An April poll by Turkey Report found only 26.5% support for the AKP, down from 29% the month before and 35.2% in February.

“The project will create lots of linkages between the AKP, the construction businesses that support it, and the working-class voters who might be employed building it,” Toygar Sinan Baykan, from Turkey’s Kirklareli University, told Asia Times. “The AKP and Erdogan may be thinking that it could be a winning electoral strategy.”

Yet, the potential cost of this economic and political calculation may be much greater in the long run than even the $20 billion price tag.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets a crowd during a mass opening ceremony at Kecioren Kalaba Square in Ankara on February 11, 2019. Photo: Adem Altan / AFP

“What keeps me awake at night in Istanbul is not a worry over how safe it is for ships on the Bosphorus,” says Atlar. “Instead, it is, how prepared is the city for the next earthquake?”

Turkey’s largest conurbation lies adjacent to a major fault line, with the last major quake in the region, in 1999, killing an estimated 17,000 people.

“We need to spend our resources on making our buildings ready for this, not on a canal,” Atlar says.

Despite this and the canal’s unpopularity – a March poll by Turkey Report showed 58% of Turks opposed it – Erdogan seems set to go ahead in any case, though, with what he himself described, back at its launch in 2011, as a “crazy project.”  

Many fear that the end cost may well be heavy, for Istanbul and for Turkey.