Istanbul canal project will become focal point in Turkey leadership battle

A project to build 28-mile long artificial waterway through Istanbul linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara will likely play an important role in a possible race between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu in the near future, the Time said on Friday.

Erdoğan is insistent on building Kanal Istanbul, which is set to cost up to $25 billion, despite grave concerns expressed by experts about the environmental consequences of the project. The government says a new waterway is needed to reduce environmental risk, pollution, and navigational hazards in the Bosporus Straits that bisect Turkey’s biggest city. 

The project sparked a row between Erdoğan and İmamoğlu in January, after the newly elected mayor, who ended last year the 25-year rule of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its predecessors in Turkey’s financial powerhouse, voiced his concerns and vowed to do everything possible to legally challenge the project.

The Istanbul municipality filed a legal complaint against the Ministry of Urbanisation and Environment on Thursday asking an administrative court to cancel the approval of an environmental impact assessment report on the Kanal Istanbul project. 

“The fight between Erdoğan and the opposition is now going to centre around the future of the canal,” analyst Soner Cağaptay told the Time. 

İmamoğlu told Time that polls showed most people in the city opposed the project. “We are going to use every legal means at our disposal to stand up for their universal rights,” he said.

“The theory that Kanal Istanbul is going to relieve congestion in the Bosporus is dead in the water, “ İmamoğlu said, adding that existing underground pipelines offered a more efficient way to transport hydrocarbons.

Instead of solving the Bosporus’ navigational hazards, he said, the canal would duplicate them, in the process creating “an island of eight million people and increasing the city’s vulnerability to earthquakes.”

In Sazlıbosna, one of the villages at the centre of the Kanal Istanbul project, where the price of a square metre of land has reached 700 lira ($126) from 10 lira ($1.6) a few years ago, a 50-year-old farmer was unhappy about the project, despite selling half of his land to speculators. 

“We’re all against the canal,” he said. “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.”