Istanbul Canal and the Bosporus Strait: A Controversy Well-Played

“Today we are opening a new page in the history of Turkey’s development. We see Canal Istanbul as a project to save the future of Istanbul … to ensure the safety of life and property of Istanbul’s Bosphorus and the citizens around it,..”

                                                                                           – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

26 June 2021

Right since the groundbreaking ceremony of the Sazlidere Bridge on 26 June 2021 over the planned route for Istanbul Canal, a series of controversial arguments and debates started. Firstly, questions over need and significance of the canal are well-founded. Secondly, governance capacity of President Erdogan has been seen with paradoxical lens. Thirdly, “Global Sustainability Pact” signed by the Turkish banks appears to be a hurdle to finance the indigenous project. As controversial as the initiative may be, it is important to delineate the actual picture.

As far as the significance of the canal is concerned, nearly 3% of global oil demand is met through the Bosphorus strait of Istanbul. Although not any serious shipping lane accident has been noticed for the last 4 decades, but many low intensity incidents carrying causalities were noticed due to the complexed S-shaped strait. Moreover, since 2002 promotion of oil and gas pipeline projects by the Turkish government has lowered traffic load on the Bosphorus strait already. One aspect supporting the Istanbul canal is the recent black sea discovery of oil and gas by the Turkish government with leading international companies i.e., Exxon and Chevron. This might increase marine traffic load and shipping vessels through the Bosporus strait which would be prospectively shared via the Istanbul canal.

Owing to this, an argument of “Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits” surfaced. The convention gives control of Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to Turkey. The regulation of civilian vessels and black-sea countries’ naval warships would be under the Turkish regime. This opens up the option of remilitarisation of straits for Turkey by annulling the Treaty of Lausanne on straits and enaction of Montreux Treaty in 1936. It would reorient the power equilibrium contrary to 20% quota usage by NATO naval warships through Turkish straits.

This opens up the option of remilitarisation of straits for Turkey by annulling the Treaty of Lausanne on straits and enaction of Montreux Treaty in 1936. It would reorient the power equilibrium contrary to 20% quota usage by NATO naval warships through Turkish straits.

The governance capacity of President Erdogan has been seen with a paradoxical lens. One of the concerns was neglecting environmental threats and the other being that the Istanbul canal is merely a real estate project as a domestic political strategy. Considering it an environmental risk may be a point of concern as the plan states developing a canal by cutting forests. Further risk of contamination of 2 water reservoirs of Istanbul city and all underground reserves ranging from Istanbul to Thrace region arose. The worrisome aspect according to experts is that this contamination would be irreversible. But President Erdogan himself stated on 26 June 2021 that this project is well researched and planned with all precautionary measures considering the future of the region and climatic changes. Looking from the prism of domestic political strategy that a project worth $15 billion would involve rebuilding of the entire infrastructure of Istanbul city. It further highlights cronyism under President Erdogan’s government.

Here a few things are clear: according to the environmental report of the project all Montreux conditions would be fulfilled. Further, neither it’s going to contaminate water reservoirs, nor it would result in rebuilding of the entire Istanbul infrastructure. As why would President Erdogan’s shrewd and vigilant government be careless enough to dismantle an already established city for the “Crazy Project”.

Thirdly, the Global Sustainability Pact (GSP) signed by the Turkish banks appears to be a hurdle to finance the indigenous project. As 6 of the main Turkish banks are signatories of GSP including Türkiye Sınai Kalkınma Bankası, İller Bankası, HSBC Bank and ING Banks. So, this political pressure is refraining them to invest in this grand national project which would turn the future games in favour of Turkey. But the Erdogan government thinks it has enough revenues to support the project. Even if the government revenues fall short, the already planned extraction of oil and gas by Turkish companies – sharing information with Exxon and Chevron – would support the project construction until the end of GSP. President Reccep Tayyab Erdogan States in his comments regarding the end of the Treaty of Lausanne’ in 2023 that “Turkey will enter a new era and will begin oil exploration and drilling a new channel linking between the two seas Black and Marmara as a preparation to start collecting fees from passing ships.”

This highlights the fears among conspirators regarding the geopolitical, geostrategic and geo-economics changes around the country which has an urge to regain the lost strength of the Ottoman empire. Turkey will look for sound economic footings to emerge as an influencer in the region if not a global driver. Although, operating through narrow and shallow canals is not easy, but the Istanbul canal would serve as an alternative way. It may even offer harbouring options with modern tugs and navigational facilities.

Sehrish Qayyum

Dr. Sehrish Qayyum is Academic Advisor at Pakistan Navy War College (PNWC), Naval Complex. She is SDPI’s Research Grantee for the domain of ‘Counter Violent Extremism’ (2020-2021). Formerly she has served in UNDP, Democratic Governance Unit (2015-2019).

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