Explained: What is Kanal Istanbul and why is Erdogan so keen to complete the project?
The Kanal Istanbul, a strategically critical sea route under construction parallel to the Bosphorus Strait, is rapidly gaining prominence as a major divisive issue in Turkey, where elections in 2023 decide the fate of right-wing President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a male strong who has long sought to present his country as a global heavyweight, but who is criticized for eroding its centuries-old traditions.
The canal, once described by Erdogan himself as a ‘crazy project’, is seen as a lifeline for the leader, who has been in control of Turkey since 2003 (first as prime minister and then as president), but has seen its popularity decline. amid a sharp rise in pandemic deaths coupled with economic decline.
Although Erdogan insists the multibillion-dollar project would bring economic benefits to Turkey, opposition politicians and environmentalists have sharply criticized him, as have others who believe the channel could threaten a key multilateral treaty that has been the foundation of peace in the region for nearly a century.
What is Erdogan’s Kanal Istanbul?
Erdogan, whose nearly two-decade reign was marked by major improvements in Turkey’s infrastructure, now wants to dig a new route through Istanbul connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, which his Justice Party and Development Fund (AKP) is touted as a major new source of income for the country.
In June, at a ceremony to launch the first phase of the canal, Erdogan told reporters the project would cost $ 15 billion, be 45 km long and 21 m deep, and be built in six years.
The planned channel will run parallel to the Bosphorus Strait, a natural waterway that separates Europe and Asia, which for centuries served as a key outlet for Russian ships entering the Mediterranean Sea. Since 1936, passage through the Strait has been governed by the Montreux Convention, a multilateral treaty which allows ships to cross almost free of charge in peacetime, and which severely restricts the movement of warships.
Turkish leaders say the new canal, which will pass through the European side of the Bosphorus, will be safer and faster to navigate than the Bosphorus, making it a more attractive option for commercial ships, who will pay to cross it.
Analysts also believe Erdogan would use the canal to bypass the Montreux Convention, marketing the mega-project to NATO allies as a legally kosher way to send their warships into the Black Sea to counter Russia, their main geopolitical rival, while attracting Chinese investment.
Bulletin | Click for the best explanations of the day to your inbox
What are the opponents of the canal saying?
Some of the project’s fiercest opponents can be found within the Turkish military establishment. In April, 104 retired admirals signed an open letter insisting that the Montreux Convention is sacrosanct and must be left intact, thus publicly defying Erdogan. Following this, the president confirmed Turkey’s commitment to the treaty, but accused the signatories of plotting a coup like the one in 2016, and jailed 10 of the admirals. They were then released.
Erdogan’s political opponents blame him for using the project as a ruse to distract public attention from figures for Turkey’s pandemic, spike in inflation and unemployment, and economic underperformance overall. Sure enough, Erdogan’s AKP is doing badly in a recent opinion poll, with its popularity dropping below 30%, according to a New York Times report.
The ranks of opponents also include Ekrem Imamoglu, the popular mayor of Istanbul who won a landslide victory over Erdogan’s AKP in 2019, and who could be a formidable challenger in the 2023 race.
Critics also pointed to investigative reports exposing real estate deals in which buyers from the Middle East have reclaimed prime plots of land through which the canal will pass.
Environmental experts have also expressed serious concerns. Among their fears is the threat the canal would pose to Istanbul’s water supply system for more than four centuries, as a wooded area housing this system would have to be dug up. Another worry is that the new man-made canal would bring the polluted waters of the Black Sea into the Sea of Marmara, and eventually into the Mediterranean.
Erdogan however denied these concerns, calling the channel “the most environmentally friendly project in the world,” according to an AFP report. He also insisted, against expert advice, on the fact that the canal would solve the problem of “sea snot” in the Sea of Marmara.
Industry experts have also expressed doubts about the viability of the project, given the recent decline in the number of ships wishing to cross the Bosporus. According to the AFP report, over the past decade, the number of vessels transiting has increased from 53,000 to 38,000 per year, thanks to the reduction in dependence on fossil fuels in some countries as well as the increased use of pipelines.