Photograph by Chris McGrath, Getty Images
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Ferries cross the Bosporus in Istanbul. To reduce crowding, the government plans to build a massive new canal, but the plan is controversial.

Photograph by Chris McGrath, Getty Images

Will Istanbul's Massive New Canal Be an Environmental Disaster?

The ambitious Canal Istanbul project could displace thousands of people, imperil the city’s tenuous water supply, and impact ocean life, critics say.

On a bluff overlooking the Sazlıdere Dam just west of Istanbul, a bust of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey’s founder, is accompanied by a quote: “The villager is the true master of the nation.” But the villagers here know little of what the government plans for them, except that they will not be around to see it.

Bosporus

This narrow channel

carried more than

53,000 ships in 2017,

making it one of the

most crowded water-

ways in the world.

BLACK SEA

Istanbul New Airport

Sazlıdere Dam

ISTANBUL

Historic area

SEA OF

MARMARA

ASIA

EUROPE

Istanbul

AFRICA

SOREN WALLJASPER, NG STAFF

ASIA

EUROPE

Istanbul

AFRICA

BLACK SEA

Bosporus

This narrow channel

carried more than

53,000 ships in 2017,

making it one of the

most crowded water-

ways in the world.

Istanbul New Airport

Sazlıdere Dam

ISTANBUL

Historic area

Lake

Küçükçekmece

SEA OF

MARMARA

SOREN WALLJASPER, NG STAFF

The farmers, fishermen, and shepherds here have watched the forests covering the hilltops surrounding their hamlet rapidly replaced by skyscrapers and sprawling housing developments. Now, the largest infrastructure project Turkey has ever undertaken will displace them altogether.

“Whoever cuts a branch from my forest, I will cut his head,” Sultan Mehmed II, who led the Ottomans into Istanbul, is said to have ordered in the 1400s. Today, thousands of trucks carrying soil and construction materials kick up dust along the roads north of Istanbul, depleting those forests that had been protected by sultans for five centuries.

Of three interlinked projects in the area, the most ambitious is Canal Istanbul (also called Istanbul Kanal), a massive shipping canal meant to route traffic from the Bosporus some 18 miles (30 kilometers) to the east. The homes alongside the new seaway will be replaced with upscale residential and commercial areas. With construction set to start there any day now, real estate speculators descend on the area, clamoring for locals to sell them their land.

The government has said the canal will be 30 miles (45 kilometers) long and 80 feet (25 meters) deep, and at some points up to one kilometer wide. It will start at Lake Küçükçekmece, a naturally formed lagoon on the Marmara Sea coast west of Istanbul, go north through the Sazlıdere Dam and Şamlar village, and connect to the Black Sea to the north. Soil excavated to form the canal will be used to build three artificial islands in the Marmara Sea. When completed, the canal will turn the densest part of the city, including its historic center, into an island. The area also straddles one of the world’s most active fault lines.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), his wife Emine Erdogan (3rdL), and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (R) cut a ribbon on December 20, 2016 in Istanbul, marking a new tunnel under the Bosporus. Erdogan calls such big infrastructure efforts his "crazy projects."

The Bosporus is currently one of the most crowded waterways in the world. Thousands of oil tankers make up part of the 53,000 civilian and military vessels that transited through the Bosporus in 2017, compared to around 12,000 ships that transited the Panama Canal, and 17,000 the Suez Canal.

“The main objective of this project is to reduce potential risks posed by ships carrying dangerous materials, passing through the Bosporus,” Ahmet Arslan, the Turkish Minister for Transportation, Maritime and Communications told reporters in Ankara this January, in announcing the canal’s route. “We also aim to create better and modern living conditions for our citizens through urban transition projects to be carried out along the planned sea route.”

At the Black Sea, the canal will link with a new, 10 billion euro airport set to open this year that will feature the largest indoor terminal in the world. It will handle 200 million passengers annually, along with an air cargo hub that Turkey hopes will draw traffic from current European airports. A new highway cutting through forest on the Black Sea coast will feed the airport and canal, bringing cargo from Europe to the west and Asia to the east.

The government has said it studied the possibility of earthquakes and tsunamis on the canal and surrounding areas, and sought to minimize the project’s environmental impact.

Yet many of the region’s environmental experts say the government has not consulted them. Some of these experts have grown critical of the massive projects, saying they could have serious ecological consequences and imperil an already tenuous water supply.

“We actually call these ‘ecocide’ projects,” says Cihan Baysal, an academic who studies urban development in Turkey and is a member of the Northern Forests Defense, a group of environmental activists in Istanbul. “These three projects are interrelated and they feed each other. The idea behind them is to boost the value of properties through speculation, and to boost the construction sector, because that turns the gears of the economy.” (See: New dam in Turkey threatens to flood ancient city.)

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The narrow Bosporus is seen from a plane window over Istanbul.

Promoting Construction

Outside a dusty teahouse in Şamlar, an advertisement for a real estate company named Canal Istanbul invites investors to an office a mile down the road. “Everyone comes to speak to us now, ever since we changed our name,” says Murat Ozcelik, the company’s owner.

Related: Learn more about Istanbul

The walls of his office are covered in depictions of what the area will look like after the canal is constructed, most taken from government plans published since 2011, when then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan first announced his intention to undertake the project. At the time, Erdogan referred to the canal, airport, and highway as his “crazy projects,” part of a plan to raise Turkey’s GDP to $2 trillion by 2023, the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the modern republic.

About 30 percent of the land along the canal route is privately owned, and it’s a highly sought-after commodity. A square meter of land around Şamlar that went for $6.5 three years ago now sells for up to $184. In some other areas along the canal’s route, prices have gone from $25 to more than $800 per square meter.

Ozcelik receives so many investors from the Middle East and Europe that he has hired employees that speak Arabic and English. “We are going to have new hospitals, parks, marinas, luxury apartments, and a city on both sides of the beautiful canal that will look like New York or Paris,” Ozcelik says, seated before a medieval Ottoman map of the world and a stylized version of the erstwhile empire’s coat of arms.

“We need this for the development of Turkey,” he says. “We don’t produce things anymore, we have little industry, so for reaching our 2023 goals, we need the construction sector.”

Around 2 million people are employed in construction in Turkey, which accounts for about 19 percent of the country’s annual economic growth. Turkish construction firms rank as the second most active in terms of overseas operations, after Chinese firms. To reach its economic goals for 2023, the government has said it will need to invest about $700 billion in new infrastructure, plus $400 billion in urban renewal projects.

With foreign currency reserves in Turkey dwindling, investment in real estate is one of the principle ways to bring in foreign cash. But many of the city planners and environmental experts Turkey once asked for advice on such mega projects now say they are being ignored. Many of these professionals say they are no longer seen as advisors, but political opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party.

In 2013, anti-government protesters staged a sit-in in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, hoping to thwart plans for replacing the green space with a commercial center. “Before the Gezi protests, we would have information about these kinds of projects,” says Akif Atlar, a member of the Istanbul Chamber of City Planners—a body whose feasibility studies once wielded the power to undo government plans.

“But now the government authorities are so strong, and so direct about these projects that the local institutions have little chance of giving input,” says Atlar. “It’s like an order from the government side, so they just follow it.”

Residents in the area challenged the projects in 2013, filing lawsuits claiming the expropriation of their land was too hasty, and the government was paying them a fraction of the true value of the land. Based on the government’s own environmental impact report, nearly 100 other villagers then filed additional cases challenging the projects. Although a court ordered construction to be halted, the government issued a revised report in 2014. At that time they resumed construction.

Clashing With the Master Plan?

The canal, airport, and highway projects directly contravene the city’s master plan, opponents charge.

In 2009, after a long series of consultations, the city of Istanbul put together a master plan for ensuring the sustainability of the area. At the time, the city was ruled by the same Justice and Development Party that governs the whole country today. With Istanbul’s population growing at a breakneck pace—from 3 million in 1980 to 15 million today—the city plan was meant to ensure resources like water and housing would be able to meet demand. (Learn about Cape Town’s water crisis.)

“The 2009 plan was trying to at least set an aim for the population of Istanbul, capping it at 16 million,” says Atlar. “The conclusion was that there should be no more settlements in the northern forest, and that water and culturally important land must be protected. Further development would be east and west, not north.”

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Crowds of people can be seen at the foot of Galata Bridge, on the banks of the Golden Horn—a major inlet of the Bosporus.

But little over a year after that plan was put in place, Atlar says, the federal government announced it would be putting a new Black Sea highway right across the northern forest, in land that he says was supposed to be protected. Leaders followed up with announcements about the new airport and the canal.

In 2012, Turkey’s federal government passed new legislation that would make it easier to reclassify any reserved land. Areas can be expropriated if they are deemed an earthquake risk, if they are needed to house people in the case of an earthquake, or if their development is considered in the national interest.

The route for Canal Istanbul, along with most of the new airport, sits in areas set aside in the city’s master plan, or reserved by the federal government for housing any displaced people from earthquake-prone areas. Of the 7,650-hectare land for the airport, which will include residential and commercial developments, 80 percent is now composed of forests and 9 percent lakes and ponds. Canal Istanbul will result in the leveling of 350 hectares of forest and run through districts that are home to more than one million people.

Besides the issue of displacing the local population, though, experts warn that there is an open question of whether or not such a canal would violate the Montreux Convention, a 1936 treaty that ensures the free passage of commercial vessels and naval ships of countries along the Black Sea, including Russia, through the Bosporus, except in times of war.

Russian warships must use the Bosporus to access the Mediterranean Sea, including to support the military's involvement in the Syrian war. At times, the passage has been the scene of military drama. In 2015, after Turkey-backed Syrian rebels shot down a Russian fighter jet, a Russian naval ship nearly sparked a diplomatic crisis after a sailor was seen standing on the deck with a shoulder-mounted ground-to-air missile at the densely populated city on both sides of the Bosporus.

Turkish officials have said the new canal will be able to handle all the traffic currently in the Bosporus, hinting that although they would like all current traffic to use the new route, the internationally protected Bosporus could also remain open, so the 1936 treaty is not technically violated. “The Montreux Convention regulates access to the Bosporus. However, the regulations for the Bosporus and the canal our country plans to build to offer an alternative route are different,” Minister Arslan said in January.

Impacts on the Water Supply?

Environment experts say the big construction projects could put the city’s water supply in danger.

Istanbul is surrounded by water, but since both the Marmara and Black Seas are salty, providing potable water for the region has been a problem since Byzantine times. In the 17th century, Mimar Sinan, the same Ottoman architect famed for the Blue Mosque, oversaw the construction of hundreds of miles of new aqueducts, several dams, and water basins that fed into hundreds of fountains in the city. Most of that ancient water system relied on streams and rivers in catchment areas in the forests north of the city—the same forests where the new airport is currently being built.

Today, around 40 percent of Istanbul’s water comes from the European side of the city, which, even according to the government’s own environmental assessments, will be severely impacted by the canal and airport. The Sazlıdere Dam will be entirely uprooted, and smaller streams and underground water tables that feed at least three other lakes in the area could end up being disrupted. A drought in 2008 depleted the capacity of the city’s water reservoirs to 25 percent, and another in 2014 to 29 percent. Even in more wet years, Istanbul residents deal with water cuts that can last days.

Impacts on the Sea?

The prospect of linking the Black Sea with the Marmara Sea is one that needs far more careful study than the government has done, says Cemal Saydam, a professor of environmental engineering at Hacettepe University in Ankara. Saydam has studied the area for several decades.

“There are two flows in the Bosporus,” says Saydam. “It’s like when olive oil and water separate. At the bottom of the Bosporus there is a [denser] flow going north, from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, and at the surface another flow coming south.”

The Marmara Sea, part of the Mediterranean, is far more salty than the Black Sea, which leads to a powerful flow of water as the two bodies naturally try to reach a state of equilibrium. That flow was put to use by engineers in the 1990s, part of a $600 million World Bank project to provide a sustainable water system for Istanbul.

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Gulls dodge the waves on the edge of the Sea of Marmara. Will the new canal lead to more water pollution?

Prior to that, untreated waste was dumped into the seas. But then a series of 67 waste treatment plants were built. The city estimates 97 percent of its waste is now treated. The effluent, including any waste that still remains, is dumped into a point where the Bosporus meets the Marmara Sea. There, it is carried by an undercurrent north to the Black Sea. The city also has an ongoing project to add several more advanced biological treatment plants.

The whole waste system “is still in operation and works perfectly well,” says Saydam.

But with the Canal Istanbul project, Saydam and other experts warn that system could be turned on its head, upending the delicate balance of life in the water. If the canal is built, Saydam says, it will provide an alternate route connecting the Black and Marmara Seas. Years of modeling and scientific studies suggest that could undo the unique waste water system in Istanbul, he says. The change in the salinity could also spark an anoxic state in the waters, one that would end up leaving the city smelling of hydrogen sulfide.

“We are warning about this project, saying it’s not feasible due to oceanographic reasons,” Saydam says. “If you decide to join the two seas you cannot think of the next five or ten years, or the next election, or the anniversary of the Turkish republic—you have to think in terms of geological time, because once you do this there will be no way to turn back.”