SEATED AROUND A SMALL, circular table on the second floor of a busy Istanbul café, three activists and I are heatedly discussing the intricacies of the Turkish government’s latest megaproject. The plan involves building an artificial channel on the western edge of Istanbul that would run parallel to the Bosphorus, a heavily trafficked natural strait that intersects this ancient city and divides the country between two continents, Europe and Asia.
“The matter isn’t siyasi (political) it is hayati (vital),” says one of the activists, pushing his index finger firmly against the table. The debate is spirited from the instant we meet, with each of the men trying adamantly to get his message across. “I would object to this project regardless of its mastermind — it could be my father’s plan and I wouldn’t care,” he adds, moving on to explain how the channel would cut through forests, marshes, farmlands, and several freshwater bodies, while his associates nod in agreement.
All three activists are associated with Ya Kanal Ya Istanbul (YKYI), a popular civilian initiative against the “ecological pillage” of the city. The name of the platform, which translates as “Either the Canal or Istanbul,” successfully conveys the widespread sentiment about the mega-infrastructure project that would form a second link between two inland seas — the Black Sea in the north and the Sea of Marmara to the south.
At the start of the interview, the activists somewhat jokingly raised concerns over my recording device, but then went on to refer to each other by old-fashioned, odd-sounding pseudonyms throughout our meeting. Their wariness is justified. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is notorious for persecuting anyone who stands in the way of his political aspirations, including activists, journalists, or even ordinary citizens who dare express their dissenting views on social media. Speaking out against his initiatives can be risky. Besides, Erdoğan, who is a champion of large-scale construction projects despite their ecological toll, has repeatedly stated that he is determined to push this project through.
“Anyone who can put two and two together can understand how terrible this project is.”
Regardless of their reasonable worries, the activists have been courageously outspoken in their criticism of the Kanal Istanbul project, which the Turkish government, as of February, hoped to break ground on by the end of the year. The initial tender for a related construction was held late in March, despite a nationwide freeze on all other non-urgent matters due to the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the activists, an architect who decided to remain anonymous, says he joined the platform after reading parts of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the project published last December. “My immediate reaction to what I read was, Aman Allah’ım (Oh my God),” he says. The EIA, which the activists called a “promotion file,” is marred with inconsistencies and inaccuracies, he says. Indeed, the report made headlines for weeks after it was released, as thousands of citizens filed petitions of objection against it.
Anyone who can put two and two together can understand how terrible this project is, Fehmi Tığlı,one of the other activists, tells me. Unlike other well-known artificial channels such as the Suez or Panama canals, Kanal Istanbul has no ambition of shortening distances travelled by ships, he points out.
The stated motive of the channel is to divert traffic away from the narrow, tricky-to-navigate Bosphorus Strait — one of the world’s busiest waterways — by encouraging tankers, especially those carrying hazardous material such as oil and gas, to use the new passageway.
“The entire rationale of the project is problematic,” says Tığlı, who is also an architect. “If you consider the Bosphorus Strait to be dangerous, shouldn’t it follow that you build the second channel outside of the city?” he asks. “Instead, you are planning a narrower, more shallow channel with almost the same current velocity, and building a new city around it!”
ERDOGAN FIRST ANNOUNCED the plan for Kanal Istanbul back in 2011, as part of his re-election bid when he was still Turkey’s prime minister. The new canal, on the European side of the Bosphorus, would be completed by 2023, he announced at the time. The date marks the centenary celebrations of the Turkish Republic after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the nation’s subsequent War of Independence.
The lasting influence of the country’s secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, has long provoked the envy of Erdoğan, who claims leadership of the country’s opposing, conservative camp. As the first politician to command as much power since Atatürk, Erdoğan’s rivalry with the man, whose given last name translates as “Father of all Turks,” adds to the significance of a 2023 completion date — it is the perfect opportunity for the seated president to showcase the extent of his own legacy.
After mulling over several alternatives, the final route of the canal — which is part of three interlinked projects, including a massive new airport on the city’s outskirts and a third bridge across the Bosphorus — was announced in January 2018.
According to the final plan, the 28-mile channel will start at Küçükçekmece Lake, a natural lagoon on the Marmara Sea to the west of the Bosphorus, go north through Sazlıdere Dam (which supplies the European side of Istanbul and its suburbs with drinking water), and connect to the Black Sea farther up north. When finished, the canal will redraw the map of Istanbul, turning its western side — which includes the city’s historic center — into an island. The project is expected to cost anything between $10 and $20 billion.
By the time the route was announced, however, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Turkish economy was on a downslide and the government was forced to freeze investments in large infrastructure projects, including this one. Still, by December last year, Erdoğan had again put the project back at the top of his domestic agenda, much to the consternation of many local environmentalists and urban planners.