A.When the Turkish Environment Minister Murat Kurum announced the approval for the construction of the new canal from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara at the end of March, the world’s attention was just occupied by another artificial waterway: a super-class container ship lay across the Suez Canal and blocked one of the most important for days Bottleneck of world trade. The Turkish canal construction project was only really noticed when retired ambassadors and admirals publicly warned of political consequences late last week. Now some of the admirals are in custody, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks of an attempted coup – probably also against his favorite project.
Business correspondent for Austria, East-Central and Southeastern Europe and Turkey based in Vienna.
As is so often the case in Turkey, power, party and domestic issues are so closely interwoven that the question of who the loud argument helps politically overrides the question of what it is actually about. The background to the current dispute is Erdogan’s plan since 2011 to build a canal. Erdogan is not the first Turkish politician to come up with the idea, but he could be the first to implement it. On Wednesday he announced that the tender was pending and that construction would start in the summer. The waterway is said to run west of the Bosporus and connect the black in the north with the Marmara Sea in the south. The site is 38,500 hectares, which is roughly half of Hamburg. The canal is said to wind its way through the country for 45 kilometers. Its width of at least 250 meters should allow unhindered passage and prevent collisions.
Exercise full sovereignty
In the past, these have occurred repeatedly in the narrowness of the Bosphorus, most recently in 2018. Gas and oil transports would then no longer have to be shipped through the metropolis of Istanbul, which has almost 16 million inhabitants, the government advertises. In addition, ships would no longer have to wait for passage and in the meantime their diesel engines would pollute the air and the environment. 160 ships should be able to pass the new canal a day, more than the average today through the Bosporus.
New freight terminals are to be built on the canal, there is talk of settlements for 500,000 people on the edge of the development area, and the huge excavated soil could create artificial islands in the sea. The project also secured thousands of jobs in the construction industry and would also create new ones.
Erdogan alluded to all of this on Tuesday when he said the canal would ease the situation on the congested Bosphorus. The political component linked to the economic component followed a half-sentence later: In addition, Turkey would exercise its full sovereignty over the new channel.
This is limited on the Bosphorus. Although the area was returned to Turkey, which lost the First World War on Germany’s side, in 1936 with the Montreux Convention, the agreement grants free navigation through the strait, and residents of the Black Sea (and only those) are allowed to pass uncontrolled warships to let.
Major environmental hazards feared from the canal
The Turkish parliamentary speaker in Ankara recently announced that this convention could be terminated. The ex-diplomats and admirals protested because it would not be the first such termination and probably because they smelled Erdogan’s trial balloon in it. Erdogan brought them close to putschists, but made it clear that he did not want to shake this convention.
With this, critics are asking to what extent the bill can still work out if the construction costs of the canal, which were calculated at almost 10 billion dollars, are quickly recovered through transit fees, if the transit through the Bosporus remains free of charge. These are not the only questions about the construction project. Many see it as no “enrichment” for Istanbul, as Environment Minister Kurum tweeted. More likely for Erdogan’s son-in-law, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who resigned in November and who, according to reports, has secured building land with Arab investors on the canal route.
Istanbul’s mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, whose party CHP ousted Erdogan’s AKP in the 2019 elections, is a firm opponent of the project, as are many environmental groups. Contrary to Ankara’s assurances, they see great environmental dangers in the canal, which not only crosses resting areas for birds, but could also affect large drinking water reservoirs in Istanbul. So far, the north and northwest of Istanbul have not been released for development for reasons of drinking water protection, summarizes the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Istanbul. Dangers also lurked in a possible salinisation of the drinking water if salt water from the canal penetrated into the groundwater. Marine scientists also fear irreparable damage from interfering with the sensitive current between the higher-lying Black Sea and the Marmara Sea. Since the water of the Black Sea is more polluted, it stands to reason that, as a result of the water exchange, the oxygen content in the Marmara Sea will decrease over time. Bad smells of the quality “rotten eggs” could be a consequence.
There is also fundamental criticism of the project. One is: It would be better to take the money in hand to make many buildings in earthquake-prone Istanbul stable.
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