Map showing the estimated location (left) of the proposed Istanbul Canal, roughly parallel to the Bosphorus Strait (right). Image: Istanbul Municipality.
A day out on a pleasure boat on Istanbul's Bosphorus Strait typically involves plenty of close-up views of massive tankers transiting between the Marmara and the Black Sea. It's a sight the Turkish prime minister wants to abolish, by carrying out his recently announced "crazy project": digging a second north-south waterway through the city, carving Istanbul up into two peninsulas and one island.
The estimated $10 billion "Kanal Istanbul" (Istanbul Canal) project was the talk of the town this week following Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's unveiling Wednesday of his much-speculated-upon plans. Supporters of the approximately 50-kilometer-long canal say it will relieve -- if not entirely eliminate -- commercial traffic on the overcrowded Bosphorus, which currently handles approximately 136 shipping vessels and 27 tankers each day. Some 150 million tons of cargo, including 100 million tons of oil, pass through the strait every year.
A Blissful Vision For The Bosphorus
"Bosphorus traffic will be reduced to zero," the prime minister vowed. "Water sports will take place on the Bosphorus, transport within the city will be established, [and Istanbul] will return to its former days."
By reducing the risk of tanker accidents on the Bosphorus, which cuts through the center of the city, Erdoğan claimed, the canal will be an environmentally friendly endeavor: "This is a project to preserve the nature, sea, water resources, green areas, the flora and fauna of Istanbul and its surroundings."
Forested Areas At Risk
Critics beg to differ, noting that the sparsely inhabited region where the canal will likely be cut -- primarily government land -- contains large tracts of forest and key water catchment areas. Though moving shipping traffic out of populated areas has been stated as a selling point for the project, the overall plan includes construction of convention centers, sports facilities, housing, and a new airport, all of which could potentially increase the city's population to 25 million.
The related development plans have some speculating that the entire project -- announced less than two months before Turkey holds a general election -- is a way to raise property values in the city and generate large building contracts, both to the benefit of the ruling party's supporters. Whether or not that is true, it's hard to see how the canal will help solve one of the city's largest problems: traffic. The volume of cars trying to cross the two Bosphorus bridges already snarls traffic for miles around; splitting central Istanbul off into an island will likely create a similar bottleneck on the other side.
Debate Over The Montreux Treaty
Debate over the project is already raging internationally as well as domestically, largely over whether Turkey would be able to use the new canal to bypass the nearly 100-year-old Montreux Treaty, which allows free passage through the Bosphorus to commercial vessels. Experts said Turkey could charge ships to use the canal by offering quicker passage to vessels that now wait for days and even weeks for their turn to enter the natural strait.
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