The price of land is booming in Sazlibosna. Over a tulip-shaped glass of tea in one of the village’s cafes, Governor Oktay Teke says that a few years ago, a square meter of land here in the farming community northwest of Istanbul was sold for just 10 Turkish lira, about half the price of a pack of cigarettes. Speculators recently flocked to the area, grabbed farmland, and pushed prices up to 700 lira ($ 126) per square meter.
Apart from the brokerage offices that have appeared next to the central square, there is little evidence of Sazlibosna, Pop. around 1,500 is the epicenter of the struggle for the largest infrastructure project that Turkey has ever carried out. Middle-aged men play cards and smoke around a stove on the cafe terrace, while a street vendor offers a line of lamb sausages between the tables. After the Turkish Minister of Transport and Infrastructure promised this month that the Istanbul Canal will lay the foundation before the end of 2020, life in Sazlibosna and in dozens of villages like this will change irrevocably.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was still prime minister in 2011 when he proposed three integrated infrastructure elements in the northern forests of Istanbul, which he described as his “crazy projects”.
The first, a third $ 3 billion bridge across the Bosphorus with pylons higher than the Eiffel Tower, was officially opened in 2016 – more than a year behind schedule. According to local media reports, Ankara was able to increase operator earnings from taxpayers’ money because it was connected to a new highway worth $ 7.3 billion and failed to meet earnings forecasts.
The second project, Istanbul’s new airport, is expected to serve 200 million travelers a year when all six runways are operational, more than any other airport in the world today. The achievement has been compromised by dozens of workers who are believed to have died in a hurry to complete them on time.
But the third could overshadow the bridge and airport in terms of cost, scale, and controversy. The Istanbul Canal, a 45 km long artificial waterway that connects the Black Sea with the Turkish Inland Sea of Marmara, is expected to cost up to $ 25 billion. Economists who claim that this will put an unacceptable burden on the fragile Turkish economy, scientists who warn of “catastrophic” environmental consequences, and political analysts fear that the potential to undermine an almost hundred-year-old multinational maritime agreement will exacerbate Turkish tensions with Russia. The Istanbul Canal “will change the city’s topography, environment and urban landscape,” said Soner Cagaptay, author of The new sultan: Erdogan and the crisis of modern Turkey,
The project has also become a focal point in the struggle for Turkish leadership, when Erdogan takes on Istanbul’s new mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition figure who is the biggest challenger to the Turkish president’s 17-year reign. Imamoglu, who called the channel a “betrayal” of Istanbul, told TIME on February 6 that polls show that most people in the city are against it. “We will use all legal means at our disposal to stand up for their universal rights,” said the mayor, speaking in Turkish through an interpreter.
On February 13, the Imamoglu office submitted a formal legal appeal against the development of the channel. Meanwhile, Erdogan says it will go on “whether you like it or not”. Cagaptay says: “The struggle between Erdogan and the opposition will now center around the future of the channel.”
For Sazlibosna, the attention was unprecedented. When environmental groups went on a hike through the sleepy village on February 2nd, which was followed by some news teams, the presence of European activists raised the suspicion of Governor Teke. “If there is a construction project in Holland, Belgium or wherever it is, it is not up to us to say whether it can go on,” he says. “These are the same demonstrators who spoke out against the third bridge, the airport and the motorway. Who are you? They are paid agents. “
The Bosphorus in TurkeyThe city of Istanbul with 15 million inhabitants between Europe and Asia was founded in the 5th century BC. An important trade and military route when it was used to transport Scythian grain to the city-state of Athens. Today it is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. Over 41,000 ships used the strait in 2019, far more than the combined maritime traffic of the Suez and Panama canals.
The S-shaped waterway is so overloaded that marine biologists call the dolphins that feed there “street children”. They dodge passenger ferries, fishing trawlers and tankers that carry tens of millions of tons of oil through the strait annually.
The Turkish government says a new waterway is needed to reduce environmental risks, pollution, and navigation hazards on the Bosphorus. This argument became more pressing after a 191-meter-long Liberian-flagged cargo ship ran aground on December 27 and forced the road to be temporarily closed. Last year, a 225-meter ship crashed into a luxurious waterfront villa. Another earthing in 2003 spilled 480 tons of oil into the strait.
Turkey’s artificial waterway, located approximately 32 km west of the Bosphorus in what is sometimes referred to as “Istanbul’s lung”, is being crossed by eight new bridges. Like the Bosphorus, it would connect the Mediterranean Sea fed with the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, which borders Turkey, Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania and Georgia. The new Turkish government says the new channel will not only reduce the risk of collisions, grounding and oil spills, but will also create 10,000 jobs in construction, a sector that employs around 2 million people in the country.
It would also effectively transform Istanbul’s most densely populated area and its historic city center into an island perched on one of the world’s most active fault lines.
Environmental scientists have raised serious concerns about the potential impact of the project. According to an environmental impact assessment approved in January, Canal Istanbul will uproot a 25-year-old dam near the village of Sazlibosna, which is part of an ecosystem that connects two natural lagoons that together provide almost 30% of Istanbul’s water supply. Hydrologists have warned that the canal would change the depth of the two seas it connects and destroy the Bosphorus currents that balance the cold fresh water of the Black Sea with the warm salt water in the Sea of Marmara.
According to the well-known oceanographer Cemal Saydam, the artificial channel could dry out the Black Sea while polluted water is dragged into the Sea of Marmara and then into the Mediterranean, damaging marine life in both countries. There is also a high risk that “all groundwater reserves will be contaminated by salt water, which is an irreversible process,” said Akgun Ilhan, water management expert at Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Center.
The mega project also poses increased geopolitical risks. The movement of ships through the Turkish strait is governed by a 1936 agreement known as the Montreux Agreement. This allows merchant ships to pass freely in peacetime, but limits the size of military ships that can enter the Black Sea from the Mediterranean and the length of stay, which helps to ensure the dominance of the Russian Navy in the water.
Still, Erdogan told CNN-Turk in January that the Istanbul Canal would be “completely outside of Montreux” – which could potentially allow NATO-flagged warships to have unhindered access to the Russian coast, a move that would shock Moscow if it did would.
It is not clear whether Turkey could unilaterally override the Montreux agreement. This is “simply not possible from an international law perspective,” says Gonul Tol, a Turkey expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Erdogan’s threat could only be “a way to strengthen his hand” against Moscow at a time of increasing tensions, she adds. In the past two weeks, two strikes supported by Russia have killed 13 Turkish soldiers in a sharp escalation of clashes between Turkish rebels and regime forces in northwestern Syria.
However, if Montreux is standing, Turkey could have trouble charging merchant ships for the passage of the artificial waterway, possibly depriving it of the ability to fund the extremely expensive project.
The channel has also become a political issue at home. Since the landslide victory against former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in the local elections last June, Istanbul Mayor Imamoglu has rarely confronted Erdogan. That changed when the Istanbul Canal became an impending prospect.
The Mayor of Istanbul, who represents the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told TIME on February 6 that Erdogan’s plans were little more than a “real estate project”. The President’s finance minister and son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, is reportedly among those who bought land near the project’s planned route – although news reports reveal that a Turkish court blocked it in January.
While the channel may be a blessing for speculators, the government has been inconsistent about how much it will cost, Imamoglu says. Erdogan has valued the project at 75 billion lira (approximately $ 12.4 billion). However, some economists have predicted that this could cost twice as much, arguing that Turkey, which was back on growth path after entering a recession in 2018 last year, cannot afford such uncertainty.
In addition, says Imamoglu, the new waterway is unnecessary. “The theory that the Istanbul Canal will relieve the Bosphorus congestion is dead in the water,” he says, adding that existing underground oil pipelines offer a more efficient way of transporting hydrocarbons. Instead of solving the navigation threats of the Bosphorus, the canal would duplicate them, “creating an island of eight million people and increasing the city’s vulnerability to earthquakes”.
Istanbul is near one of the most active fault lines in the world, 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 the southeastern Turkish provinces of Elazig and Malatya in January and at least 38 people died, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told CNN Turk that the government was “seriously working on the possible scenario of the earthquake”.
However, Imamoglu warns that developments along the canal route could make the effects of an earthquake more devastating. In a series of tweets at the end of last year, the well-known Turkish geologist Dr. Naci Gorur predicted that massive excavations, which were facilitated by explosives, and the plan of projects to build small islands from the excavated earth in the Sea of Marmara could exacerbate the risks associated with the underground fault lines in the region. The mayor said after more than 40 experts attended a community-run workshop on January 10, “we couldn’t find a single scientist to defend the canal.”
Still, it can be risky to oppose Turkey’s mega-projects. In a café on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, the architect Mücella Yapici, the former general secretary of the Istanbul Chamber of Urban Planners (TMMOB), says that plans for the canal “make no sense at all”.
Recently, however, Yapici’s objections have been forced to take a back seat. This month, a Turkish court is expected to rule on whether the 68-year-old and 15 other defendants are guilty of attempting to “overthrow the government or prevent all or part of its functions”.
These allegations relate to Yapici’s role in the 2013 protests at Gezi Park, which began as a sit-in against plans to build a commercial center in one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul. Human rights groups say the charge is motivated solely by political interests.
But Yapici, who has the opportunity to live without parole, believes that the timing of the Gezi process will “suppress potential opposition-related issues.” [the canal]”- and warns that the atmosphere of oppression has hampered a rigorous assessment of the feasibility of the project, particularly in the academic community. “You are intimidated,” she says.
Beyond the minarets From the Sazlibosna Mosque, the bucolic view over the location of the new canal is only interrupted by a series of electricity pylons that run along a ridge along the horizon. Local brokers have boasted that developments on both sides of the canal will make villages look like Paris or New York, with shiny apartment complexes, marinas, parks, and hospitals.
For many, it’s an enticing thing. “We are happy because this place will continue to develop,” says local governor Teke, whose family roots in Sazlibosna go back to 1862. Teke has reviewed the government’s environmental impact report and is certain that no villagers will be forced to leave their country. “There will be many financial benefits for us,” he says.
Others are not so sure. Hasan, a fifties farmer, has recently sold about half of his country to speculators, but doesn’t seem to be happy about it. “We are all against the canal,” he says to TIME, standing next to old agricultural equipment and the overturned hull of a rowboat. “They only build this channel so that a ship or two can pass, but they kill our way of life.”
With reporting from Engin Bas / Istanbul