In 2011, shortly before an election that would secure him his third consecutive term as prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his vision to build a “crazy project”: Kanal İstanbul (Channel Istanbul), an artificial waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The canal would split the European side of the city in two, thus creating an artificial island, and run parallel to the Bosphorus Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways.

Although little has been said over the past seven years, it wasn’t until the start of this year that the hugely ambitious plan became a near certainty, when the exact route was announced. The 28-mile canal will run from the Durusu region on Istanbul’s Black Sea coast to Lake Küçükçekmece on the Sea of Marmara.

According to documents from Turkey’s Environment Ministry seen by Reuters, the canal will be 25m deep and between 250m-1,000m wide, depending on where the docks are located.

Transportation, maritime affairs and communications minister Ahmet Arslan told pro-government Turkish publication Daily Sabah that project studies have already been completed and there are plans to break ground and start laying the foundations sometime this year.

A boost for the economy

With a projected cost of anywhere between $10bn-$20bn, Kanal İstanbul is expected to be the country’s biggest infrastructure project, overshadowing other ambitious feats such as the Istanbul New Airport, the new Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge over the Bosphorus and the Big Istanbul Tunnel Project, a connector between Asia and Europe at 110m below sea level.

“Opening a new channel parallel to the Bosphorus is my dream,” Erdogan told an audience at the Turkey-Serbia Business Forum in 2011.

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If works begin as planned this year, the canal will be operational by 2023, when the Turkish Republic celebrates its 100th anniversary.

The justification behind this hugely expensive project, which will permanently alter the geography and urban spread of one of the largest cities on Earth, is firstly based on trade.

Supporters hope that Kanal İstanbul will relieve shipping traffic from the already congested Bosphorus, increasing capacity for shipping to and from the Black Sea. Some 43,500 ships passed through the strait in 2015, and once open, Kanal İstanbul is designed to rival that capacity by accommodating 160 vessel transits per day.

“Kanal İstanbul will relieve shipping traffic from the already congested Bosphorus.”

The added reasoning is that this will make passage safer, as oil tankers and cargo ships carrying dangerous substances will not be forced to squeeze through a congested strait, reducing the risk of collisions and subsequent environmental damage.

Interestingly, the new waterway will also be exempt from the Montreux Conventions Regarding the Use of Straits, a seven-decade long convention which ensures that ships enjoy free passage through Turkish straits. As such, the government could charge ships for passing through the new canal.

But easier and safer passage isn’t the only purpose: supporters hope it will also restructure Istanbul as a social and economic zone.

Murat Kurum, general manager of Emlak Konut REIT (a Turkish real estate investment company that has 33 projects planned along the route) highlighted that the canal will boost real estate value in the area, as well as become a source of employment and revenue, both for the region but also the country. Even before the project was confirmed, housing prices in the neighbourhoods expected to be along the route reached the highest level in three years.

Big plans, but no environmental assessment

Erdogan Turkey Istanbul

Credit: Kancelaria Premiera

Despite its grandiose promises, some see Kanal İstanbul as a purely political vanity project, and even a potential environmental tragedy in the making.

Writing in the science journal Nature, Professor Derin Orhon from Istanbul Technical University warned that the project could gravely affect the surrounding marine environment, which is already under severe threat of pollution.

“Every day, more than two-thirds of the Istanbul’s raw effluent is poured into the Marmara and the Bosporus,” Orhon wrote, “some 1,100 tonnes of organic matter, 130 tonnes of nitrogen and 20 tonnes of phosphorus, as well as a wide spectrum of other chemicals and hazardous materials. Erdoğan’s canal could worsen the situation.

“First, in opening a channel for the waters of the Black Sea to mix with the Marmara, it offers a new route for polluted water to head south. Second, there will be an indirect increase in the amount of waste­water generated in and around Istanbul, because work on a new canal will probably catalyse further development. At present, much of this extra waste will finish in the Marmara.”

Istanbul-based group Northern Forest Defence also published warnings issued by two other scientists: Professor Cemal Saydam of Hacettepe University and Professor Ethem Gönenç of Istanbul Technical University, who claim the canal could cause the hydrologic balance to be reversed when the cold and fresh waters of the Black Sea mix with the warm and salty waters flowing from the Mediterranean Sea.

“Every day, more than two-thirds of the Istanbul’s raw effluent is poured into the Marmara and the Bosporus.”

“That will be the beginning of an irreversible environmental disaster,” the campaign group notes, as the canal will act like a tap draining water out of the Black Sea. “While the Black Sea slowly dries up, the warmth and the salinity of Marmara Sea and the Mediterranean will change. The Marmara Sea will become putrefying water mass irreversibly altered, with devastating consequences for marine and urban life.”

In 2012, a petition initiated by Professor Saydam against the project gathered over 26,795 signatures at the time of writing. Turkey’s Green Party also urged the Turkish Government to immediately stop the channel project, citing deforestation near Istanbul, as well as long-term ecological damage that could even affect neighbouring countries such as Greece.

In December last year, the Chamber of Environmental Engineers publicly demanded that the ministry release their full environmental study.

However, despite this pressure, as well as announcements that work on the canal will start within the year, a full environmental impact assessment has not yet been released.

According to Turkish media, the finalised but unpublished report includes plans for green areas and areas of protection. Arslan stated that the ministry has already revised all environmental and climatic factors, including winds and deep-sea waves in the Black Sea and Marmara Sea entrances.

“Our aim is not to adversely affect the Marmara Sea with this project, but on the contrary, to positively affect and to prevent accidents, especially caused by freight transport,” he said.