Erdoğan determined on Istanbul canal project despite growing controversy

Turkey will soon start work to build an artificial waterway in Istanbul to circumvent the Bosporus Straits which would strengthen the country’s economic and strategic power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Thursday. 

“Those who oppose Kanal Istanbul do not have the slightest information about what the project means,” Erdoğan said in response to widespread criticism of his mega-project over environmental and financial concerns. 

“It is not legally, economically and socially possible to prevent the maritime traffic in the Bosporus,” Sabah daily quoted the president as saying. “The only solution is to build an alternative waterway.”

Erdoğan has repeatedly spoken of the dangers the busy traffic in the Bosporus Straits pose for Istanbul as justification to build Kanal Istanbul. But, according to a poll conducted last month, 72.4 percent of people living in Istanbul oppose the project, which the government estimates will cost approximately $15 billion.

Istanbulites waited for hours in long queues last month to submit their appeals to the team carrying out the environmental impact assessment of the project. Kanal Istanbul has also sparked a heated row between Erdoğan and Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, who last year won the local elections in Turkey’s financial powerhouse ending the 25-year rule of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its predecessors. 

İmamoglu says the canal project will create both an environmental and financial disaster, claiming the real cost will be more than $75 billion.

The battle between two political heavyweights can extend beyond the canal project, the Voice of America said on Wednesday. 

Transport Minister Cahit Turhan countered İmamoğlu’s claims on Monday, saying that annual transit fees of up to $1 billion will cover the cost of the canal, but “analysts point out, however, it's unlikely ships will pay when the Bosporus is free — unless more significant restrictions on the use of the straits were imposed by Ankara, which likely would be considered violations of the Montreux Convention,” the VOA said. 

Experts also warn Erdoğan's canal plans are likely to face growing international push-back because of fears the project could undermine the 1936 Montreux Treaty, which regulates the transit of all ships through the Bosporus, the VOA said. 

Former Turkish Ambassador Mithat Rende, an expert on the treaty, told VOA that Russia would be the first to oppose the project. 

"The Montreux Convention is of the utmost importance for them. It's a sacred cow for Russia," he said. 

The treaty strictly controls the use of the Bosporus by warships of non-Black Sea countries, limiting the presence of the U.S. Navy in the Black Sea, the VOA said. 

"The Russians are aware the Americans feel uneasy about the Montreux Convention," Rende said. "Because they have limited access to the Black Sea, because of the limited tonnage that each country cannot keep more 30,000 tonnes of capacity in the Black Sea for a period of 21 days only."