Turkey • Canal Istanbul, catastrophe, corruption and profits

Canal Istanbul

For a good while, opposition media in Turkey, or at least what is left of them, have been publishing articles with alarming headlines, Canal Istanbul is a catastrophic project without equal”, “Canal Istanbul will cause a catastrophe“, “The Power’s impossible project: Canal Istanbul among others…

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According to Prof. Dr. Haluk Gerçek, one of the scientists signing the WWF-Turkey report titled “Either the Canal, or Istanbul”, maritime circulation on the Bosphorus causing accidents and which are one of the reasons leading to the project, have been in constant and considerable diminution since 2007. He states that, “the reason behind the Canal Istanbul project is not, as announced to facilitate circulation and avoid accidents, but rather to stimulate the building industry and to open remaining natural spaces in the city to construction, in what consitutes a catastrophic real estate project.”

The stated objective of the project: “Saving Istanbul”

In keeping with the increase in world economic activity, the number of ships crossing the Bosphorus would be on the rise…The current number of ships would average some 50 thousand a year. Commercial ships ply the Bosphorus since the signing of the Montreux Convention, a multilateral international agreement ruling over the navigation of straits, signed on July 20 1936. Taking into account the increase in global activity, that figure would soon reach 80 thousand. Maritime transportation of dangerous and toxic products, particularly fuels, would represent a veritable threat on the city Moreover, once completed the project would bring in some 8 billion Turkish lira per year. Taking all of this under consideration, this project would then be very most important and necessary.

This is how ministers, the President of the Republic and their servile media argument and defend the projected Istanbul Canal, imposing it on the population at the tip of a tsunami of propaganda.

The true objective of the project: ‘Turning a profit”

Figures tell another story entirely. There is question of an estimate predicting that the number of ships crossing the Bosphorus would double in 20, 40 years. Instead, over the past 12 years, a diminution of 27,3% has been observed. In 2007, 115 transits were registered, and 113 in 2018.

The explanation is simple. In order to diminish costs and increase profits, users of maritime transportation have privileged larger ships rather than transporting smaller volumes in several trips. So that, contrary to the views defended by power, the number of ships is diminishing. Also coming into play is the fact that transportation of natural gas or petrol is now much more secure and less costly by pipeline.

We can thus assure that the Istanbul Canal project – of which the Minister of Transportation Cahit Turhan said, or admitted is truly a project that could… we may add: a large-scale massacre of nature.

Is there truly a need for the Istanbul Canal?

This project, served up on a silver platter by Erdogan claiming it to be “my greatest dream” is in fact a project that comes up from time to time, and for the first time in the days of Suleyman the First, known as “the Magnificent”. Every time it was brought up, it was dropped again. Why? Precisely because it never proved itself to be necessary.

Today, this canal project is used as an argument against the crossing of the Bosphorus by ships. There exist other canals in the world that were built to reduce on the time and the cost of crossings, such as Panama and Suez…We will not go into research to demonstrate if, at the time of their construction, these projects caused natural destructions, work-related ‘accidents”, just as the Istanbul Canal could…The sole difference we must point out between the Istanbul Canal and these two previous ones is that the maritime crossing already exists in Istanbul: it’s called the Bosphorus.

The Istanbul Canal would be approximately 45 km long. The Bosphorus is 30 km. There are thus no savings in terms of time or cost of the crossing. What is more, the Bosphorus is a natural waterway which considerably facilitates the legal aspect of the crossings. Rules and conditions are already provided for in the Montreux Convention. One must also know that this project which at one time was described as “mad” by those in power themselves, then transformed over time into an “imperative need” on the population in the context of the “great works”, provides for tariffed crossings. Which is to say that, according to article 10 of the Montreux Convention, ships now crossing the Bosphorus would have to pay in order to use the Istanbul Canal. You don’t need to be a great soothsayer to see already that the Canal will not be the crossing favored by any ship whatsoever.

Another dimension: the natural catastrophe

Those scientists and citizens who have maintained a modicum of rationality can see and issue warnings that with the construction of the Canal, an artificial island would be created and the water zones around Istanbul would disappear in their current form.

That is not all. In the interior Sea of Marmara where all the rubble from the construction would end up, there would also appear artificial islands and changes in levels of the sea floor. Such a human intervention will inevitably affect the marine ecosystem.

Taking only these two negative examples into account, the entire population of Istanbul will be affected.

Moreover, if one looks closely at the Istanbul Canal’s itinerary and that of the future artificial island, one may ask: “To whom will be allotted these zones that will increase in ‘real estate value’ and be divided into lots?” Who will buy and live in villas with a view on the Canal? Even putting aside allegations predicting that like other “valuable” neighborhoods in Istanbul, the surroundings of the Canal will be sold to Qatari and Saudi “emirates”, it is obvious that one will not see working-class neighborhoods sprouting up on the profitable lands, but rather luxury residences. Which means the forced displacement of the current inhabitants of the planned building site toward suburbs further removed outside the city and gentrification of the area

In reality, the Istanbul Canal is a “real estate project” part of a megalomaniacal package along with the third airport of Istanbul, the third bridge on the Bosphorus and the Marmara North Highway; a “new city” conceptualized by State power for the nouveaux riches.

The Istanbul Canal will also open the door to another danger: earthquakes. The great earthquake destined to destroy Istanbul some day is not a myth. It is documented by every sismologist. Through more or less important seismic shocks, sometimes felt by the inhabitants and sometimes going unnoticed, it reminds of its arrival every day. An opportunity to note in passing that no prevention policies have been developed, quite the contrary, since the few open spaces that must be preserved and designated as assembly spaces are built up despite the howls from urbanists, architects and scientists. “Instead of a Canal, make provisions for the earthquake!”  The Istanbul Canal piles on additional risks on those already existing. The mouth of the canal on the Sea of Marmara will be very close to the seismic fault lines of the predicted great Istanbul earthquake. As a reminder, in case of earthquakes, the Istanbul Canal will set up a barrier for fleeing populations.

Obviously, in a mega-city where a mega-earthquake is expected, reason should lead to an urban policy avoiding as much as possible constructions and layouts done in a haphazard way…But, of course, expecting this is useless from a regime that seems to live in a “parallel universe” and endures because of the projected profits and pillaging imposed on the populations.

And the budget in all this?

Apparently, this year the Istanbul Canal is budgeted at 75 billion dollars. That’s funny…last year is was slated at 118$ billion. One might suspect that those in power are loweing the estimates in order to win over public opinion…

In the report titled “The Structures integrated in the Canal”, a projected port called “IGA Port” stands out. The associates behind this project are the authorities’ “favorites”, such as Kalyon, Limak, Cengiz and Mapa, which is to say those who signed on and continue to sign on to projects of hydroelectric power stations and the natural catastrophes they engender.

Now, if we take into account the fact that the ones in power will realize this projected Canal out of public funds and with the famous “partnership” formula so beneficial to friends’ businesses: “build, manage and pass on”, the reality is that the announced sums, be they of 75 or 118 billion dollars will be a State-business misappropriation. The polite term for it is “public-private partnership”. And one can see as big as a house that, as with earlier projects of bridges, paying highways, airports “with insured exploitation”, the people will be the filling in the holes through new taxes and levies…

It is not hard to guess either that, as happened in other projects of pillaging signed by these same business – one can mention the third Istanbul airport as a recent example – countless “work-related accidents”, programmed “assassinations” will occur due to lack of security measures and poor working conditions. Countless injustices will be noted and those noting, signaling and denouncing them will be threatened, intimidated, arrested and even, seeing the gigantic size of the project, will face death threats. Other grandiose megalomaniacal projects have accustomed us to this.

Toward an eventual diplomatic crisis?

Another discussion arises with the Canal project. The question being: “is this new seaway contrary to the Montreux Convention? “

The crossing of the Bosphorus was opened to foreign commercial ships in 1829, then, with World War I to warships. A commission called the “The Straits Commission” set up in conjunction with the Lausanne Treaty in 1923 took responsbility for Bosphorus crossings by all ships. Moreover, according to the current spokespersons of the current leaders in Turkey, there are no validity limits on this convention. Countries benefitting from the Montreux Convention are those with shores on the Black Sea. The convention imposes limits on warships crossing the straits, in terms of tonnage and length of stay in the Black Sea, as well as giving the Republic of Turkey authority to close the straits in case of war. Of necessity, eyes then turn toward rival countries on the world stage…

In his declaration concerning the Istanbul Canal, Aleksei Erkhov, the Russian Federation’s Ambassador, underlined “as long as it does not violate the Montreux Convention.” Already in 2011, Vladimir Ivanovsky, Russian Ambassador to Ankara, said “the Montreux Convention must be preserved.” As for Erdoğan in his comments at the NATO meeting in 2016 following the 2015 “plane crisis“, he stated that, “The Black Sea is turning into a Russian lake.” This would not be very satisfying for the United States either for whom, according to the Montreux Convention, the Black Sea remains the only sea that is not “open”…The Canal project thus becomes part of Erdoğan’s political poker at the regional and the world levels.

Finally, an environmental impact evaluation (ÇED) also brings to light the fact that authority of the regime on the straits covered by the Montreux Convention covers the entirety of the Bosphorus, the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmara, and thus indicates in what dangerous waters the Turkish State is now swimming…According to the report, there are plans for another canal opening from the North of the Straits of the Dardanelles toward the Gulf of Saros. The fact a warship coming from the Aegean Sea could reach the Black Sea without crossing the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus would announce a diplomatic crisis of world-wide dimensions. Thus, the fact that NATO country ships having no shores on the Black Sea could reach it nonetheless through this artificial navigation road might cool the “close and friendly relations” between Turkey and Russia…

Closing words

As a reminder, State authorities and institutions such as the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK), the State Water Company, the Airport management directorate, had all issued negative opinions on the Istanbul Canal prior to approving it following political pressures. Declarations describing the project as “geared for success” coming from the top levels of the State, the chorus response by the instruments of propaganda for the State – media and press relays – indicate that the State’s insistence on this project will continue and that it may well become a reality some day.

This article is a free adaptation of İktidarın “İmkansız Projesi” : Kanal İstanbul” (Power’s impossible project: Istanbul Canal) written by Gizem Şahin who ends on a positive note: “Nonetheless there is resistance against this imposed project. For the time being it takes the form of signatures on petitions (HERE in English), of protests from hundreds of people standing in the rain, of actions such as “human chains”. This provides early signals of how this groundswell could transform, facing a State that imposes with insistence, saying” Whether you want or don’t want, no matter, it will be done!”. There was such a case in May 2013.

This article lists questions and concerns that are not new. It also denounces the basic corruption that will be fed by the major projects. This criticism is common to the “opposition” in Istanbul. It could mobilize those who “changed kings” at the last municipal elections. But we also know that it is not only a question of the Reis’ megalomania, but is part of regional projects based on alliances and compromises satisfactory to the financial sector, be it secular.

This projected Canal, like all other useless grandiose projects is simply toxic and in total contradiction with the Future, and the necessary political and financial choices in order to make that future possible and lasting. And there will not only be Erdoğans who will want to impose it, so much does its capitalist logic go beyond the nostalgic Ottoman yearnings.

And, at Kedistan, we do not make out a ZAD-like logic that might arise today in Istanbul…

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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