Istanbul’s mega projects stoke environmental and economic concern

The opening of Istanbul’s third airport to commercial flights on October 29 while construction is still ongoing has raised environmental and economic concerns.

While Turkey’s economy is currently in a downturn, the third airport is expected to cost 10.2 billion euros, making it the most expensive project in Turkey's history. Only a portion of the airport will be completed by the end of October, with other phases of the project continuing well into the next decade.

According to government officials, the airport will have a capacity of 90 million passengers a year in the first phase and 200 million in the second. The opening of Istanbul New Airport in October will signal the close of Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport.

Istanbul New Airport is located 30 minutes from the centre of Istanbul in an area that was heavily forested before construction. It is not surprising, then, that environmentalists have opposed it since it was first proposed four years ago.

Road under construction

The third airport is located to the north of Istanbul on the border of the Black Sea and Lake Terkos, close to several villages. According to environmentalists, the destruction of forested areas and basins will adversely affect air quality and living conditions for the city. Roughly 2.5 million trees will be cut down by the end of the project, negatively impacting the region's ecosystem.

In addition, water from dozens of canals from large and small ponds will be released into the Black Sea, which will cause an environmental disaster in the Thrace Region, according to environmentalists. Seventy wetlands feeding the Terkos Basin, which is vital for meeting Istanbul's water needs, will dry up, they say.

The airport also sits on a vital bird migration route, the Istanbul Bird Watching Group says. This also poses a security issue. The group highlighted the fact that hundreds of thousands of birds migrate through the region in the spring and autumn, leading to a greater risk of a bird flying into a plane's engine.


Zafer Güney from the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects validated the concerns of those critical of the airport’s construction.

“When an airport is being established, water basins, migration routes, transportation, and environmental impact assessment reports are all taken into account and considered if conditions are appropriate. None of these was looked at in the construction of the third airport. Even people in the airport's working team are voicing their concern over this," he said.

Zafer Güney

The third airport sits on an area of 76 million sq metres and will have six independent runways with the capacity to park 500 planes at one time and serve 3,500 planes a day.

''About 10 percent of the airport is being opened. The remainder of the project will be allocated to the transport and cargo area. But our politics are so tense that it's highly possible that this area could remain idle," Güney said.

The new airport is forecasted to accommodate 35 wide-body cargo planes at one time. When the airport opens, it will have 2.5 million tons of cargo capacity a year. After the phases for the airport’s expansions are complete, it will have the world’s largest cargo carrying capacity at 5.5 million tons a year.

If project deadlines are met, Istanbul New Airport is expected to support economic growth in the country – both from its commercial flights and from a massive cargo area. According to the 'Istanbul New Airport Economic Impact Analysis' report prepared by the Economic and Foreign Policy Research Centre (EDAM), the new airport will bring in 4.5 percent of gross national income by 2025.


The question then remains as to why this massive airport needed to be built. According to Güney, Atatürk Airport – which handles around 45 million passengers every year – could have been made more functional instead of building an entirely new airport.

One main motivating factor, said Güney, was to complement another mega-project: Kanal Istanbul, a planned artificial waterway to connect the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Kanal Istanbul is expected to cost around more than $5 billion.

Located near the third airport, the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge connects Istanbul’s European and Asian sides and was opened in August 2016. However, according to Güney, the bridge’s performance has failed to live up to projections.

“The third bridge is also experiencing a crisis,” said Güney. “Mega projects have caused serious blows to the woods north of Istanbul. Opening this area to a settlement will destroy Istanbul’s lungs.”