Yavuz Baydar
Oct 21 2018

Ecologists pin their hopes on Turkey's declining economy to stop disastrous projects

The Turkish economy’s rapid decline since late last year seems to have given environmentalists breathing room.

One of the two giant construction projects proudly initiated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is slowing down.

Istanbul’s huge new airport, on the shores of the Black Sea, was to be inaugurated October 29. The ceremony, meant to coincide with Turkey’s Republic Day celebrations, would have marked the completion of an expensive, prestigious and controversial project.

The airport, which cost approximately $14 billion, is to facilitate 150 million passengers a year. Workers, who have been protesting inhuman conditions at the job site, say there has been enormous pressure to complete construction by month’s end.

Though authorities insist the ceremony will take place as planned, it will be claptrap. The deadline will not be met. The General Directorate of State Airports said the transfer of operations from Istanbul Ataturk Airport will start December 30 or 31 at the earliest. The measure is meant to avoid flight chaos, apparently. Ataturk Airport currently takes the bulk of air traffic in Istanbul.

Istanbul’s new airport is not the only project facing difficulties. An even bigger one, dubbed “ecocide” for its environmental implications, may be called into question. Kanal Istanbul — a massive shipping route 45km long, 25 metres deep and 1km wide — is to connect the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Erdogan has called it his “crazy project” and it is ambitious because nearly 43,000 vessels crossed the Bosporus in 2017, making it one of the busiest maritime passages in the world.

There will also be a new highway along Turkey’s Black Sea coast, cutting through precious forests, but, as Erdogan hopes, providing commercial connectivity. The waterway and highway are expected to cost $25 billion.

The economic turbulence has somewhat hushed official talk about the canal but environmentalists remain vigilant. They are raising concerns about unforeseen consequences of the project.

What will be the effects of deforestation?

How will migratory bird routes be affected?

What happens to the ecosystem of the two seas?

Ecologists say they were not consulted about the wisdom of such a project.

Increasing concern is being expressed by Turkey’s neighbours. In an impressive piece of investigative journalism, Turkish reporter Dicle Basturk outlined the effects Kanal Istanbul would have on the lives of 310 million people in the region.

He quoted experts saying that the waterway would be a second channel (to the Bosporus), would affect the 7,000-year-old Black Sea and alter oxygen levels in the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean Sea.

The Turkish straits, including the Dardanelles, the Bosporus and the Marmara, are unique. They connect the Mediterranean and Aegean seas to the Black Sea states of Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine has officially commented on the project but Basturk reported that Romania and Bulgaria raised concerns and demanded regional consultation. This is because Turkey would be challenging international treaties if it goes it alone.

Regional actors, especially littoral Caspian nations, may have something to say because geopolitics and the valuable oil and natural gas reserves in the countries near the Caspian Sea have transformed the Turkish straits into a strategic hub.

Another potential challenger of the project will be Greece, which is measuring sulphur levels from the Marmara Sea to the Aegean.

Will Kanal Istanbul be built?

The problem is the lack of meaningful opposition to Erdogan’s administration. The government’s obsession with growth by construction is a reminder of how it is like the Soviets, whose destruction of the Aral Lake basin is fresh in memory.

The most recent example of environmental policy becoming the focus of dissent was in 2013 when young people in Istanbul protested the bulldozing of trees in Gezi Park to make way for a shopping mall. They were forced into submission.

Today’s civil society groups are more insignificant by far. They issue infrequent statements to protest decisions that affect the environment but those barely find a place in the pro-government media. With Turkey having adopted a super-president system of governance, parliament operates as a rubber stamp and the judiciary is in a state of paralysis.

No wonder many ecologists say they are pinning their hopes on a force majeure, which is to say the declining economy. The recent postponement of public tenders for Kanal Istanbul was music to their ears.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.