Most of Istanbul‘s residents are opposed and protest groups often showed their dissatisfaction about it. But Turkish President Erdogan left no doubt last week: “Whether you want it or not: the Istanbul Canal will come. It will come.”
Erdogan launched the construction of the massive waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara on Saturday. The canal comes west of Istanbul and has to reach 45 kilometres long, with six new bridges and luxury marinas and state-of-the-art residential areas on its banks.
It must be done in six years, but not an inch of digging. The ambitious plans for now only exist in flashy animations.
The huge channel is potentially the biggest infrastructure project ever in Turkey. Erdogan once called it his “insane project”. But above all, it’s a mega project that divides the Turks.
The 1500 inhabitants of the village of Sazlibosna had to read in the newspaper that their village is part of the canal project. “They‘re talking about the channel, but nobody knows anything and nobody tells us anything,” says villager Birol. “We villagers don’t want this channel. People lose their place. What happens to our homes when they go to expropriate?”
Village head Oktay Teke, a faithful member of Erdogan‘s AK party, sees opportunities. That’s not strange, because he‘s also the village’s real estate agent. Since the canal‘s route has been known, speculators have been driving the land price on it. “As part of the channel project, the most luxurious city is being built here. It’s going to be like Dubai and Qatar. All houses have three, four, five floors above the ground floor. And there‘s a lot of green coming.”
Teke acknowledges that the information they get is scarce. “We haven’t heard anything from official side. But the press says no one is at a disadvantage. We wait it.”
According to environmental groups and city planners, there are large groups of victims. The project is a disaster for nature and viability in Istanbul, they say. The canal crosses nature reserves and miles of farmland, and will block two large lakes that provide millions of people with drinking water.
The fierest opposition comes from Erdogan‘s political opponent Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul. The Istanbul Canal has to relieve the crowded Bosphorus strait, which has already passed 43,000 ships every year while its safe capacity is 25,000. Imamoglu finds an artificial waterway and all extra buildings unnecessary. “Istanbul doesn’t need any more concrete and urbanization. Istanbul wants to be a healthy city.”
Istanbul is near the North Anatolian Fracture, a fault line that has often been major earthquakes in the past. A concrete channel with constructions on the banks is very vulnerable to a major earthquake, fears Imamoglu. “I say this because I think of Erdogan‘s future as well. Because he’s also one of the 16 million citizens in this city.”
But Erdogan doesn‘t think about quitting. For him, the channel, an old dream of many Turkish rulers, is a prestige project. According to the government, all criticism is only meant to sabotage Erdogan’s success.
“All of our government‘s major projects in the past have also been criticized, such as Istanbul’s new airport,” says Transport Professor and AKP member Mustafa Ilicali. “That needs to be explained in the right way: that the project is of great benefit to citizens who love their country.”
But before building really starts, much more money is needed. Banks are reluctant to finance because of all criticism. China is mentioned as an investor, but nothing is still official.
In Sazlibosna they know one thing for sure: the residents don‘t get to say anything about the project. “People are under pressure here and don’t dare to speak out,” says Birol. “They‘re afraid something happens to them. There’s no other explanation.”