‘I get nightmares’: Turks fear impact of Erdoğan’s $65bn Istanbul canal

There isn’t usually a lot going on at the Sazlıdere dam north-west of Istanbul, one of several reservoirs providing the megacity with fresh water. Yet this week the calm expanse of forest, farms and marshland was at the centre of the latest battle of narratives in Turkish politics.

On Saturday, President Recep Tayip Erdoğan is due to attend a ceremony here for an element of the biggest and boldest of the construction megaprojects that have come to define his two decades in office: his “crazy” Istanbul canal.

The official price tag is $15bn, but the real figure was estimated at a recent developers conference in France to be $65bn. In an extremely polarised society like Turkey, building a canal linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara is a rare topic on which almost everyone agrees: it’s a crazy idea.

The louder the opposing voices grow, however, the more determined Erdoğan appears to be to proceed. He told members of his ruling party recently that tenders would be held soon and groundwork laid over the summer “whether [critics] like it or not”.

“I think the idea of the canal, rather than the canal itself, is what we are really talking about, because the actual thing is impossible. Even for a government like this, which runs on a construction frenzy, it would take maybe 20 years, and in the process totally destroy the Marmara water basin,” said Yörük Işık, a non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“Besides, there’s no financing. Even Turkish banks won’t touch it, citing sustainability and environmental concerns. It’s like some grand fantasy project out of the 19th century … There’s a reason no one builds in this way any more.”

The president first announced the creation of a 45km shipping canal, running parallel to the Bosphorus strait, which cuts through the heart of Istanbul, in 2011.

The Bosphorus is one of the world’s most important commercial and military maritime channels; under the 1936 Montreux convention, Ankara controls the strait, but must allow vessels belonging to Russia and its other Black Sea neighbours access to the Mediterranean.

When the idea was first floated a decade ago, the Turkish government said the canal would ease congestion and the risk of accidents on the natural waterway, allow Turkey to bypass the convention, and create high-value residential zones on either side.

Since then, though, the increasing size of individual tankers and construction of hydrocarbon pipelines has led to a 10% decrease in traffic through the strait. Given Turkey’s economic struggles, the canal is now seen by many as superfluous to the city’s needs – an astronomically costly environmental disaster, with potential geopolitical fallout to boot.

“I can’t sleep at night when I think about this cement project. I get nightmares about it,” Istanbul’s opposition party mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, told journalists during a press conference earlier this week in which he challenged the claim that Saturday’s foundation-laying for a new bridge was part of the canal project.

“If the project is completed, the first thing that comes to mind is the right of future generations to live in a healthy environment. No amount of money can fix that if it is lost,” he later told the Guardian.

The mayor’s worries are echoed by Turkey’s scientific and environmentalist community. According to Dr Akgün İlhan, a water management expert at the Istanbul Policy Centre, the project’s colossal environmental impact has been ignored in official surveys and assessments.

“The canal would create enormous and irreversible adverse impacts on the ecosystem and society in not only Istanbul, but the entire Marmara region. There is both freshwater loss of up to 13% of the water currently available for human use, and the even greater danger of soil and groundwater salinisation and contamination as the canal would carry salty water from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara,” she said.

“The canal will also make Istanbul more vulnerable to earthquakes and extreme weather events such as droughts and floods. A project on such a large scale that connects two different seas can never be considered safe.”

For some, the impact will be personal. In the pretty town of Yeniköy, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, hundreds of homes lie in the path of the planned northern mouth of the canal.

“Maybe that’s just the fate of this place,” said a local, referring to the expulsion of Yeniköy’s Greek population during the birth of the modern republic nearly a century ago. “The people need to emigrate again after 100 years to another place. But where? We talk when we gather for tea and all the women say the same thing: where should we go?”

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