Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center, with his wife Emine Erdogan by his side and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, right, during the opening ceremony of a road tunnel underneath the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul in December 2016. | Ozan Kose—AFP/Getty Images

The Multibillion Dollar Canal Carving a Rift Through Erdogan's Turkey


Land prices are booming in Sazlibosna. Over a tulip-shaped glass of tea in one of the village’s cafes, local governor Oktay Teke says that a few years ago, a square meter of land here in the farming community northwest of Istanbul sold for as little as 10 Turkish lira, about half the price of a pack of cigarettes. Recently, speculators have flocked to the area, snapping up swathes of farmland and pushing prices to up to 700 lira ($126) per square meter.

Besides the realtors’ offices that have mushroomed next to its central square, there is little to suggest Sazlibosna, pop. around 1,500, is the epicenter of the battle over the largest infrastructure project Turkey has ever undertaken. On the cafe’s terrace, middle-aged men play cards and smoke around a stove as a hawker proffers a string of lamb sausages between tables. But after Turkey’s Minister of Transport and Infrastructure this month promised Canal Istanbul will break ground before the end of 2020, life in Sazlibosna, and dozens of villages like it, is set to change irrevocably.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was still prime minister in 2011 when he proposed a trio of integrated pieces of infrastructure in Istanbul’s northern forests he referred to as his “crazy projects.”

The first, a $3 billion third bridge over the Bosphorus with pylons higher than the Eiffel Tower, officially opened in 2016—more than a year behind schedule. Connected to a new $7.3 billion motorway, it failed to meet earnings projections, requiring Ankara to boost operators’ revenues from taxpayer money, according to local media reports.

The second project, Istanbul’s new airport, is expected to serve 200 million travelers a year when all six of its runways are in operation, more than any other airport in the world today. The achievement has been marred by the dozens of workers believed to have died in the rush to complete it on time.

But the third could eclipse the bridge and the airport in cost, scale, and controversy. The Canal Istanbul, a 28-mile long artificial waterway linking the Black Sea with Turkey’s inland Sea of Marmara is set to cost up to $25 billion. It has drawn a fierce backlash from economists who say it would place an unacceptable burden on Turkey’s fragile economy, scientists who warn of “catastrophic” ecological fallout, and political analysts concerned that its potential to undermine a near-century long multinational maritime accord will exacerbate Turkish tensions with Russia. Canal Istanbul “will transform the city’s topography, environment, and urban landscape,” says Soner Cagaptay, author of The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.

The project has also become a focal point in the battle over Turkey’s leadership, pitting Erdogan against Istanbul’s new mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition figure who is the most significant challenger to the Turkish president’s 17-year rule. Imamoglu, who has called the canal a “betrayal” of Istanbul, told TIME on Feb. 6 that polls show most people in the city are against it. “We are going to use every legal means at our disposal to stand up for their universal rights,” the mayor said, speaking in Turkish through an interpreter.

On Feb.13, Imamoglu’s office filed a formal legal objection to the canal’s development. Erdogan, meanwhile, says it will go ahead “whether they like it or not.” Says Cagaptay: “the fight between Erdogan and the opposition is now going to center around the future of the canal.”

For Sazlibosna, the attention has been unprecedented. When environmental groups went on a Feb. 2 trek through the sleepy village—trailed by a smattering of news crews—the presence of European activists roused governor Teke’s suspicions. “If there is a construction project in Holland, Belgium or wherever it’s not up to us to say whether it can go ahead,” he says. “These are the same protesters that opposed the third bridge, the airport, and the motorway. Who are they? They are paid agents.”

Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait, which bisects the 15-million population city of Istanbul between Europe and Asia, has been a vital commercial and military traverse since the 5th century BC when it was used to transport Scythian grain to the city-state of Athens. Today, it remains one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Over 41,000 vessels used the strait in 2019, far more than the combined maritime traffic of the Suez and Panama canals.

So congested has the S-shaped waterway become that marine biologists refer to the dolphins that feed there as “street children.” They dodge passenger ferries, fishing trawlers, and tankers that transport tens of millions of tonnes of oil through the strait annually.

Turkey’s government says a new waterway is needed to reduce environmental risks, pollution, and navigational hazards in the Bosphorus. That argument became more pressing after a Liberian-flagged 191-meter cargo ship ran aground on December 27, forcing the Strait’s temporary closure. The preceding year, a 225-meter ship crashed into a luxury waterfront mansion. Another grounding in 2003 spilled 480 tons of oil into the strait.

Located around 20 miles west of the Bosphorus, in an area sometimes known as “Istanbul’s lung,” Turkey’s man-made waterway would be crisscrossed by eight new bridges. Like the Bosphorus, it would join the Mediterranean-fed Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea, which in addition to Turkey borders Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, and Georgia. In addition to mitigating the risk of collisions, groundings and oil spills, Turkey’s government says the new canal will create 10,000 jobs in construction, a sector that employs some 2-million people in the country.

But it would also effectively turn Istanbul’s most densely populated area, and its historic city center, into an island perched atop one of the world’s most active fault lines.

Environmental scientists have voiced grave concerns about the project’s potential impact. According to an Environmental Impact Assessment approved in January, Canal Istanbul will uproot a 25-year-old dam near Sazlibosna village, which is part of an ecosystem connecting two natural lagoons that together supply almost 30% of Istanbul’s water supply. Hydrologists have warned that the canal would alter the depths of the two seas it connects and play havoc with Bosphorus currents that balance the Black Sea’s cold freshwater with the warm salty water in the Sea of Marmara.

According to prominent oceanographer Cemal Saydam, the artificial channel could dry up the Black Sea, while dragging polluted water into the Sea of Marmara and then the Mediterranean, harming marine life in both. There is also a high risk “all groundwater reserves will be contaminated by salty water, which is an irreversible process,” says Akgun Ilhan, a water management expert at Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Center.

In addition, the megaproject brings with it heightened geopolitical risks. The movement of ships through the Turkish straits is governed by a 1936 agreement known as the Montreux Convention. This allows merchant ships free passage during peacetime but limits the size of military vessels that can enter the Black Sea from the Mediterranean and the length of time they can stay, helping assure Russian naval supremacy in the body of water.

Yet Erdogan in January told CNN-Turk that Canal Istanbul would be “totally outside Montreux” — potentially giving NATO-flagged warships unimpeded access to the Russian coastline, a move that would horrify Moscow if it came to pass.

It’s not clear whether Turkey could unilaterally overrule the Montreux Convention. It’s “just not possible from an international law point of view,” says Gonul Tol, a Turkey expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. Erdogan’s threat might be merely “a way of strengthening his hand” against Moscow at a time of increasing tension, she adds. In the past two weeks, two Russia-backed strikes killed 13 Turkish soldiers in a sharp escalation of clashes between Turkey-based rebels and regime forces in northwest Syria.

But if Montreux stands, Turkey might face problems charging commercial vessels to transit the artificial waterway, potentially robbing it of a means to help pay for the hugely expensive project.
An aerial view of the Canal Istanbul project on Jan. 2, 2020. | Erdem Sahin—EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The canal has also become a political issue domestically. Since winning a landslide victory against former prime minister Binali Yildirim in municipal elections last June, Istanbul Mayor Imamoglu has rarely confronted Erdogan directly. That changed when Canal Istanbul became an imminent prospect.

Istanbul’s mayor, who represents the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told TIME on Feb. 6 that Erdogan’s plans amounted to little more than a “real estate project.” The president’s finance minister and son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, is reportedly among those who have purchased land near the project’s planned route — though news reports revealing that were blocked by a Turkish court in January.

While the canal may be a boon for speculators, the government has been inconsistent on how much it will cost, Imamoglu says. Erdogan has priced the project at 75 billion Lira (around $12.4 billion). But some economists have predicted it could end up costing double that, arguing that Turkey, which returned to growth last year after entering a recession in 2018, cannot afford such uncertainty.

Besides, says Imamoglu, the new waterway is unnecessary. “The theory Canal Istanbul is going to relieve congestion in the Bosphorous is dead in the water, “ he says, adding that existing underground oil pipelines offer a more efficient way to transport hydrocarbons. Instead of solving the Bosphorus’ navigational hazards, he argues, the canal would duplicate them, in the process creating “an island of eight million people and increasing the city’s vulnerability to earthquakes.”

Istanbul lies close to one of the world’s most active fault lines and seismologists have predicted that a major earthquake in the region could kill up to 30,000 people. When a 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit Turkey’s southeastern provinces of Elazig and Malatya in January, killing at least 38 people, Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told CNN Turk that the government is “seriously working on the possible scenario of the earthquake.”

But Imamoglu warns the development along the canal’s route could make the impact of an earthquake more devastating. In a series of tweets late last year, prominent Turkish geologist Dr. Naci Gorur predicted that massive excavations, facilitated by explosives, and the projects’ plan to build small islands from the excavated earth in the Marmara Sea, could exacerbate the risks posed by underlying fault lines in the region. The mayor says that, after more than 40 experts attended a Jan 10. workshop hosted by the municipality, “we couldn’t find a single scientist who would defend the canal.”

Still, opposing Turkey’s megaprojects can be risky. At a cafe on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, architect Mücella Yapici, the former general secretary of the Istanbul Chamber of City Planners (TMMOB), says plans for the canal “make no sense at all.”

Of late, however, Yapici’s objections have been forced to take a backseat. This month, a Turkish court is expected to pass a verdict on whether the 68-year-old and 15 other defendants are guilty of attempting to “overthrow the government or partially or wholly prevent its functions.”

Those charges relate to Yapici’s role in the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which began as a sit-in to oppose plans to build a commercial center in one of central Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces. Human rights groups say the charges are solely motivated by political interests.

But Yapici, who faces the possibility of life without parole, believes the timing of the Gezi trial will “suppress potential opposition related to [the canal]” — and warns the atmosphere of oppression has impeded rigorous assessment of the project’s viability, especially among the academic community. “They are intimidated,” she says.
A real estate advertisement offers apartments with a view on the canal in the small coastal village of Karaburun, Turkey, in June 2018. | Yasin Akgul—AFP/Getty Images

Beyond the minarets of Sazlibosna’s mosque, bucolic views over the site of the new canal are only interrupted by an array of electricity pylons skirting a ridge along the horizon. Local realtors have boasted that development on either side of the canal will make villages like this look like Paris or New York, replete with shiny apartment complexes, marinas, parks, and hospitals.

For many, it’s a tempting proposition. “We are happy because this place is going to evolve,” says local governor Teke, whose family’s roots in Sazlibosna date back to 1862. Teke has reviewed the government’s environmental impact report and says he is assured that no villagers will be forced to leave their land. “There will be a lot of financial benefits for us,” he says.

Others are not so sure. Hasan, a farmer in his 50s recently sold off about half his land to speculators but doesn’t seem happy about it. “We’re all against the canal,” he tells TIME, standing next to some old agricultural equipment and the upturned hull of a rowboat. “They are building this canal just so one or two ships can pass by, but in the process, they’re killing our way of life.”

With reporting by Engin Baş / Istanbul