Erdogan eager on Istanbul canal but opposition fierce

Construction of Istanbul’s new canal got underway over the weekend, though completion of the heavily politicized plan - the city’s largest infrastructure project - is doubted by many.

At a ceremony at the Sazlidere dam, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan poured the first load of a cement of a building that will be part of the project that will also include the construction of luxury homes, shopping centers and a marina alongside the waterway.

In a plan the Turkish leader had been initially put together in 2011, the 45 kilometer project is a ship canal that runs around Istanbul, to the city’s north.

The waterway, linking the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, will be completed in the six-year time frame and is seen as helping prevent the risk of accidents taking place on the busy Bosporus Strait, government officials say.

The project’s first structure, an eight-lane, 840-meter road bridge, will link to the North Marmara highway that also connects other recent infrastructure projects — a new airport and a third Bosporus crossing.

Political opponents and environmentalists, however, strongly oppose the project saying that it is being used by Erdogan to boost sagging popularity levels ahead of 2023 elections and that it will take an enormous toll on the environment.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who leads the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has vowed to abandon the $15 billion plan if he wins the next elections.

Along with Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, he has threatened to blacklist international finance and construction firms involved in the project.

A number of local banks are believed to be reluctant to finance the canal project due to investment risks as well as concerns that it will cause irreversible damage to the environment.

The canal will cut through farms, marshes and about two dozen villages, destroying marine ecosystems as well as basins that provide nearly a third of Istanbul’s fresh water.

Environmentalists have raised the alarm over the effect on the Sea of Marmara, while others point out that a nearby 8,500-year-old Yarimburgaz archaeological site will come under threat.

There has been also considerable talk that China or regional ally Qatar could play a role in funding as the canal also poses geopolitical issues.

According to Selcuk Colakoglu, director of the Turkish Center of Asia Pacific Studies, a project of this magnitude could only be financed by a handful of countries that will come with a list of conditions.

"Whichever country is willing to finance this project, it will not be a purely financial decision," Colakoglu told Nikkei Asia.

"It will also come with political and diplomatic strings attached, where the financier will seek a maximum degree of foreign-policy strategy coordination," he said.

Others have questioned the feasibility of the canal and raised suspicions that its main purpose is to profit pro-government construction firms.

“In summary, this is not a transport project but a residential project that a canal passes through,” Nuran Zeren Gulersoy, head of architecture at Istanbul’s Isik University, told