THERE IS NO such thing as a bad view of the Bosporus, the waterway that divides Istanbul between Europe and Asia. But the one from the bridge of the Gas Cobia, a 180-metre tanker, as it makes its way from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, is hard to beat. Ottoman palaces slide past. Hagia Sophia soaks up the morning sun. The towers of the Rumeli Hisari, the fortress Sultan Mehmet II used to choke off supplies to the city he later conquered, march down to the shore. Passenger ferries and fishing boats bounce on the waves.
For Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one Bosporus is not enough. So he is building another. In June, at a ground-breaking ceremony for a bridge over the Sazlidere, a river on Istanbul’s western fringes, Turkey’s leader announced he was starting work on a giant canal, known as Kanal Istanbul, bypassing the Bosporus altogether. A tender linked to the project, for housing units close to the Sazlidere, took place on October 7th. The new waterway would stretch for 45km (28 miles), turn the city’s European side into an island, and cost at least $15bn. Mr Erdogan himself describes the canal as a “crazy project”, presumably in a good way. Critics describe it as the biggest rent-seeking exercise in Turkey’s history and a recipe for an environmental disaster.
Mr Erdogan’s pitch comes down to safety and money. The canal, he says, would be easier to navigate than the Bosporus, reduce congestion in one of the world’s busiest channels and bring in new revenue. Under the Montreux Convention, signed in 1936, civilian vessels can pass through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, the straits linking the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean, free of charge. (The convention places limits on the size and number of warships that can cross the straits, and on their length of stay in the Black Sea.) But traffic can lead to long waiting times. Mr Erdogan’s hope is that ships will pay transit fees to jump the queue and use his canal.
Aboard the Gas Cobia, Captain Ismail Akpinar shouts instructions at the ship’s crew (“Steady, zero two zero”). The Bosporus passage involves a dozen sharp turns of up to 80 degrees, currents of up to four knots (7kph) and shallow waters. For a small fee, shipping agents turn to experienced pilots like Captain Akpinar for help.
They have every reason to do so. Ships regularly suffer engine or rudder problems during the passage. Three years ago, a tanker ploughed into a waterside mansion, causing over $30m in damages. The much greater danger, for a city that is home to more than 15m people, is a spill or an explosion. “If a medium-sized LPG tanker blows up here, nothing within a 3km radius survives,” says the captain.
But in fact the Bosporus, contrary to the government’s claims, is becoming easier to navigate. The number of transits has fallen steadily, from 56,606 in 2007 to 38,404 last year. Thanks to skilful pilots, new traffic regulations and GPS technology, safety has been improving. No big, deadly accident has taken place in more than 40 years. Waiting times average less than 14 hours.
Many analysts say building a new waterway next to an existing one makes no sense. With the Montreux Convention in place, ships that prefer to use the Bosporus and pay nothing would still be able to do so, notes Serhat Guvenc, a professor at Kadir Has University. The canal would only marginally reduce waiting times, he says. It would also be much more exposed to the storms that occasionally roil the Black Sea, says Yoruk Isik, a shipping analyst. “It would still be easier to transit the Bosporus, even on a bad weather day,” he says.
Some doubt the project will ever get off the ground. Insiders say the ceremony in June was a stunt, and that the construction of a bridge over the Sazlidere was part of an unrelated road project. The logistical obstacles are immense. To make room for the canal, the government would have to reconfigure Istanbul’s roads, its sewage system and its power and gas lines, says Mr Isik. The price tag could easily reach $35bn, around 5% of the country’s GDP, says a Turkish banker. Contractors, including some Chinese and Western companies, are sniffing around, but most banks want nothing to do with it.
Environmentalists warn of catastrophe. The canal could destroy Istanbul’s main reservoirs, raze much of its remaining forest and cover yet more land in concrete. It could also poison the Sea of Marmara. The canal would allow much more water from the Black Sea, which is less salty and packed with organic compounds, to gush into the Marmara, depleting its oxygen and killing much of its marine life.
The real point of the canal, critics suspect, is to offer construction companies close to the government new land to develop. “This is a real-estate project,” says Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, who is leading a campaign against it. Mr Imamoglu’s party is in opposition at the national level and warns that, should it come to power, it will suspend all work on the canal. But the mayor does not have the authority to stop work from going ahead.
Some Turks have bought into the hype. At his office a short walk from where the canal would meet the Black Sea, Hakan Bolukbasi, an estate agent, is doing a roaring trade. A square metre of land near the planned route of the canal now sells for 1,000 lira ($113), he says, up from 50 lira five years ago. Nearby, the fields brim with sunflowers, villagers sell watermelons from tractors and water buffaloes graze. All this may soon be gone. The area, and much of the land near the canal, has been earmarked for new housing. Buyers include Berat Albayrak, a former finance minister married to Mr Erdogan’s daughter, and members of Qatar’s royal family.
The danger is that Mr Erdogan may use the canal as an excuse to renegotiate, or even withdraw from, the Montreux Convention. Earlier this year, after Mr Erdogan revoked Turkey’s participation in a convention protecting women from violence, the speaker of parliament remarked that the president could do the same with Montreux. Mr Erdogan said he would abide by it until a better one comes along. The comments provoked an angry response from Russia, which sees Montreux as a way to keep Western navies out of the Black Sea.
Without the convention, the Black Sea would turn into a “powder keg”, says Cem Gurdeniz, a retired admiral. Earlier this year he and several other former officers were briefly arrested on coup charges after penning an open letter defending Montreux and criticising the canal project. The investigation is ongoing. The canal may one day trigger a crisis in the Black Sea. But it will provoke a political row in Turkey long before that. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Bosporus blues”