The Grandiose Dream and Impending Catastrophe of Canal Istanbul

 In GDI, Russia, Land, Sea, Ukraine, Environment, Turkey

Canal Istanbul is what the Turkish lead­ers call a “crazy project.”

This dream, a mas­sive engi­neer­ing prowess equiv­a­lent to the Suez and Panama canals, would change the world map and create a new water­way link­ing the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea. It would also shield the city of Istanbul from pos­si­ble nav­i­ga­tion haz­ards.

Marc Pierini

Pierini is a vis­it­ing schol­ar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focus­es on devel­op­ments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European per­spec­tive.

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It sounds good. Except that the project will also have cat­a­stroph­ic envi­ron­men­tal and hydro­log­i­cal con­se­quences, not to speak of land spec­u­la­tion, altered mar­itime traf­fic rights between the two seas, and poten­tial mil­i­tary con­se­quences.

Officially, the reason for build­ing an alter­na­tive water­way between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, cur­rent­ly linked by the narrow 31-kilo­me­ter cor­ri­dor of the Bosporus strait, is to avoid the recur­rence of mar­itime cat­a­stro­phes. These have occurred mul­ti­ple times and include ship col­li­sions, ground­ings, fires, and oil spills.

The strait han­dles a lot of traf­fic—43,000 ships in 2017, three times the traf­fic of the Suez Canal, accord­ing to Turkish state tele­vi­sion—result­ing in a number of acci­dents. This is the vir­tu­ous side of the project, explained when its detailed route was pre­sent­ed by the gov­ern­ment in January 2018: it would dras­ti­cal­ly lower nav­i­ga­tion and envi­ron­men­tal haz­ards.

Next is the government’s envi­ron­men­tal impact assess­ment. Many of Istanbul’s envi­ron­men­tal­ists and urban plan­ners, as well as the met­ro­pol­i­tan mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, have object­ed to the hasty way in which it was con­duct­ed and con­clud­ed. As the project includes build­ing sev­er­al new cities along the water­way and bring­ing new eco­nom­ic activ­i­ties to the area, all bound to affect urban plan­ning for Istanbul and its region, there is a demand for public con­sul­ta­tion with the par­ties con­cerned.

There are also rumors of land spec­u­la­tion by some indi­vid­u­als and enti­ties. But, even if true, this is not the core issue.

The main impend­ing con­se­quences are to be found in the hydrol­o­gy domain. Due to the dif­fer­ences in water level, salin­i­ty, and tem­per­a­ture between the two seas, the Bosporus oper­ates a com­plex nat­ur­al system of exchang­ing waters in both direc­tions. Less saline sur­face waters run south­ward from the Black Sea, while north­bound under­cur­rents bring warmer and more saline waters from the Mediterranean Sea, cre­at­ing the so-called Black Sea under­wa­ter river. This nat­ur­al bal­anc­ing mech­a­nism ensures that the Black Sea is con­stant­ly regen­er­at­ed.

According to recent reports, Canal Istanbul would dis­rupt this mech­a­nism to a huge extent. Several experts pre­dict that heav­i­ly pol­lut­ed waters from the Black Sea (coming mainly from the Danube, Dnieper, Dniester, and Don rivers) would quick­ly kill marine life — and there­fore fish­ing — first in the Sea of Marmara and then in the Mediterranean Sea.

Looking at just the hydro­log­i­cal side of things, it is beyond doubt that Turkey cannot imple­ment a project with such con­se­quences alone with­out inter­na­tion­al involve­ment and agree­ment.

The next issue is the dis­rup­tion of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which estab­lish­es free­dom of traf­fic through the Bosporus under the con­trol of the Turkish gov­ern­ment.

At this stage, it is far from cer­tain that the con­ven­tion will apply to ves­sels paying a toll to tran­sit via Canal Istanbul. But if the con­ven­tion will not apply to the canal, it would in prac­tice mean nul­li­fy­ing it and uni­lat­er­al­ly cre­at­ing a new role (and new rights?) for Turkey in mar­itime traf­fic reg­u­la­tion between the two seas. Questions abound. Would Turkey set dif­fer­ent rules for mar­itime traf­fic on the new canal com­pared to the con­ven­tion apply­ing to the Bosporus? Would it — in the absence of any inter­na­tion­al author­i­ty or treaty — be free to open or close tran­sit through the canal to cer­tain flags at its sole dis­cre­tion?

Then comes mil­i­tary traf­fic, a sen­si­tive issue at a time when Russia is build­ing a stronger pres­ence in the Mediterranean, has annexed Crimea, and has uni­lat­er­al­ly restrict­ed traf­fic in the Sea of Azov to its advan­tage and to the detri­ment of Ukraine.

Access to the Black Sea for mil­i­tary ships is unre­strict­ed for the navies of the ripar­i­an states — Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine — and lim­it­ed in terms of ton­nage, dura­tion of pres­ence, and fre­quen­cy for all other navies. Canal Istanbul raises new ques­tions: Will it accept mil­i­tary traf­fic, and, if so, would the mil­i­tary aspects of the Montreux Convention apply? Or would Turkey on the con­trary exclude mil­i­tary traf­fic from the new canal? Would the bal­ance of mar­itime power in the Black Sea ulti­mate­ly be affect­ed?

Canal Istanbul clear­ly raises a host of unan­swered and legit­i­mate ques­tions for the coun­tries con­cerned, be they mem­bers of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, the EU (Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania are direct­ly con­cerned), or NATO. The United Nations cannot remain indif­fer­ent either.

The future of Canal Istanbul is dif­fi­cult to pre­dict. When the Turkish pres­i­dent, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is asked about the project, his answer is simple: the project will go ahead irre­spec­tive of objec­tions, as it is clear­ly con­sid­ered to be a nation­al project, not one within the remit of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, inci­den­tal­ly led since June 2019 by İmamoğlu, one of the few polit­i­cal rivals to Erdoğan.

Yet given the pletho­ra of ques­tions aris­ing for a number of coun­tries con­cerned, it is hardly con­ceiv­able that con­struc­tion could be launched with­out seri­ous inter­na­tion­al con­sul­ta­tions.

But who would bring gov­ern­ments around a table for such talks?

Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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