Istanbul Canal: Erdogan’s mega-project for the “gang of five” of the construction sector

Erdogan’s project to create an artificial Bosporus canal between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara does not originate from any necessity for the Turkish people. It will have enormous consequences for the working class and the environment. It will also open the door for new imperialist conflicts. 

Back in 2011, during the election campaign, Erdogan announced a “crazy project”. By crazy, however, he intended to mean something very good. Now he wants to realize his “crazy” project, the Istanbul Canal, which will take a heavy toll on nature and the interests of the majority of people in the country. The project is about creating an artificial shipping canal parallel to the Bosporus, to connect the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. It will be created to the west of the Istanbul, a city of 16 million people. It will be about 45 km long, from 250 to 360 meters wide and 20 meters deep. Thus, if created, it will be longer and narrower than the Bosporus. 

The project is very controversial and is even opposed by the other establishment parties. They have even openly warned potential foreign investors and lenders that they will not pay back any of their investment in case of a change of government. This did not stop Erdogan from announcing his plan and turning it into his own prestige project: “Whether they like it or not, Istanbul canal is going to be built” he said.

The canal serves no real needs

Erdogan and his supporters like to compare his project with the Panama and the Suez canals. But while these two canals significantly shortened shipping traffic, the Istanbul Canal will not make shipping routes any shorter! 

One argument on the part of the regime in favor of the canal is that there is too much shipping traffic congestion in the Bosporus. However, the figures do not validate this argument. According to statistics, shipping traffic on the Bosporus decreased by 27.3 percent between 2007 and 2018. 

Another claim is that there is a constant risk of accidents due to shipping traffic on the Bosporus. But that is also not a valid argument to justify a megaproject that will have severe consequences for the environment. Since a tanker accident in 1994, the passage of tankers over 200 meters long from the Bosporus at night has been prohibited. Thus, there has not been a major accident in the last 25 years (which of course does not mean that such accidents can be ruled out in the future). In any case, this is not an argument in favor of the Istanbul canal that is narrower than the natural strait. 

The regime also claims that the canal could bring 8 billion dollars annually to the Turkish treasury, since the shipping through the Bosporus is free of charge, according to the 1936 Montreux Treaty which regulates the traffic in the Bosporus. This is also an amount that has nothing to do with reality. According to an article published in The Independent in Turkey, the country has achieved total revenues of $143 million in 2019 with 42.000 ships on the basis of the Montreux Agreement (this is income from seaway pilot services, etc). This amounts to 3,400 dollars per ship. In order to be able to achieve annually even only one billion dollars, this figure per ship must rise to around 23,000 dollars. The question that arises is: why would ships pass through the Istanbul Canal, when they can pass through Bosporus with only a fraction of the cost?

An irreparable damage to the ecosystem

Istanbul Canal, cannot be justified by any reasonable argument. There are a lot of reasons to reject it, especially because, if its construction goes ahead, it will cause devastating damage to the ecosystem in the surrounding area.

The ecosystem along the planned canal route has a rich flora and fauna with a large number of plant and mammal species. The canal will create the risk of extinction for these rare and endangered species. 

Moreover, it will directly threaten the water supply of the city of Istanbul, because in the area where it will run there are two important water resources for the city: Sazlidere Barrage and Terkos Lake. Both cover a third of Istanbul’s water supply, which already has constant water shortages. The two water resources will be destroyed either directly by the canal or by salt water. Not only that, but saltwater leaking from the canal will also affect Istanbul’s groundwater resources.

According to the Environmental Impact Assessment report, 52% of the project area is agricultural land. 23 million square meters of forest land and 136 square kilometers of productive farm lands, will be gone forever. According to a study by the Istanbul Municipality, more than 200.000 trees would have to be cut down for the new canal. 

Another important impact has to do with the fact that the Sea of Marmara is in danger of dying. The canal will affect the water circulation of the Bosporus. The sea of Marmara is based on a delicate balance between more salty waters flowing upstream from the Mediterranean Sea with less salty waters flowing downstream from the Black Sea. According to oceanographers, the new canal poses a danger to that equilibrium and threatens to reduce the oxygen content in the water, thus causing the gradual death of this inland sea. 

New disputes over the Montreux Treaty

Istanbul Canal has also provoked discussion about the 1936 Treaty of Montreux. The treaty returned to Turkey full sovereignty over the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus. At the same time, it imposed the restriction that in peacetime all merchant ships are granted free passage. In the case of warships, access is granted only to countries bordering the Black Sea.

The building of Istanbul Canal threatens to change the state of affairs regarding this. If it is built, Erdogan can grant access to warships of other countries (such as the USA) to enter the Black Sea. For this to happen, Erdogan has to also build an alternative route to the Dardanelles (which is governed by the same treaty) or retreat from the Montreux Treaty altogether.

Most of the criticism in this regard comes from the Kemalist opposition. They fear that Erdogan or other powers like the USA will force a situation where some countries can bring their warships to the Black Sea in any tonnage they want and for as long as they want without being subject to the Montreux restrictions. This is a situation that Russia of course is totally opposed to. After all, the Montreux treaty is of central importance to Russia from a security policy point of view. For example, when the USA wanted to send two medical warships off the Georgian coast during the Georgian-Russian war in 2008, Turkey –even though a NATO member– had to refuse it.

Of course, Erdogan will not revise the treaty against his own interests. However, he might want to use the initiated debate on the revision of the treaty as a bargaining card with US and Russian imperialism. The fact is that Istanbul Canal could open Pandora’s box for new imperialist tensions on the Black Sea.

A mega-project on the backs of the working class

According to the regime, the canal will cost 15 billion US dollars. However, most probably this is a gross underestimation of the real cost. When the project was initially announced, in 2011, the government had stated at the time that the cost was expected to be 75 billion Turkish liras. Calculated with the dollar-lira exchange rate at the time, this amounted to $50 billion. 

How exactly the canal will be financed is still unclear and Erdogan is searching for investors. For the realization of the project, like Erdogan’s all other megaprojects, a public-private partnership is under discussion. However, at the end of the day the cost will be put on the backs of the working class, to whom this pointless canal has nothing at all to offer.

Who is interested in this project?

Not the working class! But Erdogan and a handful of building companies, probably! Yes, they are the ones that have a great interest in the project. 

Cengiz Holding, Limak Holding, Kalyon Holding, Kolin Holding and Makyol Holding are the five companies that always win the contracts for all big public projects – even in countries like Azerbaijan, Northern Cyprus or anywhere Erdogan has influence. 

They have become widely known as, the Erodogan’s “Gang of Five”. According to the World Bank’s 2018 figures, they are among the ten companies that have won the most public tenders in the world in a decade. This represents a total volume of $204 billion. That Erdogan is an “invisible” profiteer from these gains, is not difficult to assess.

As part of the project, a whole new city will be built, according to the regime, with about 500,000 or more inhabitants. Contractors will be given 83 square kilometers of land to build it. Several bridges will be built over the canal: a connecting highway, a yacht and container port, housing units and related infrastructure, etc. 

This is another aspect of Erdogan’s insistence on building this useless canal. The Turkish economy is in a crisis. Officially, the unemployment rate is 14% and inflation is over 17%. 

Erdogan is facing presidential elections, which will most likely be brought forward so as to be held next year. And he is continuously losing support. So, with the construction of a canal and a new city around it, he also hopes to boost the economy and his profile. 

The shelf life of Erdogan’s regime has expired

When the 2019 Environmental Impact Assessment (CED) report was available, there was immediately a wave of reactions and a several metres long queue of people who wanted to file objections against it was created in Istanbul. There were also protests on the street, but they were stopped by the pandemic. There is huge rejection for the canal among broad layers of the working class. 

Of course, under the present circumstances in Turkey, the organization of mass protests, blockades, boycotts and strikes poses great challenges for the movement and activists, because the country has been under a state of emergency for five years. But we will struggle and hope that Erdogan will not succeed in enforcing his plan. More importantly, we believe that the shelf life of the Erdogan regime has expired a long time ago. The fate of Erdogan’s regime and his Istanbul Canal project depend on each other and we hope that both will soon end up in the dustbin of history.

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