AKP’s Istanbul candidate Kurum says he sidelines Kanal Istanbul amidst ‘more pressing priorities’

Kanal Istanbul currently isn’t a priority, AKP’s Istanbul candidate Murat Kurum remarked in an interview, marking a departure from his previous fervent support for President Erdoğan’s pet project.

Duvar English

Murat Kurum, the Istanbul mayoral candidate for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), downplayed expectations for the construction of Kanal Istanbul, an artificial waterway project aimed at linking the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea through a channel parallel to the Bosphorus.

In an interview on March 18 with journalist Cüneyt Özdemir, Kurum responded to Özdemir that Kanal Istanbul is currently "not on the agenda," stating that they have more pressing priorities, such as making Istanbul more seismic resilient.

Özdemir asked, “If you were elected as Istanbul mayor tomorrow, and Mr. Erdoğan said, ‘Let’s build Canal Istanbul,’ would you also say, ‘We have other priorities’?” Kurum responded, “I would, of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

The AKP candidate previously avoided providing clear answers regarding the potential project. However, Kanal Istanbul was notably absent from his ‘System Istanbul’ plan announced in late Jan. 2024, which outlined various infrastructure initiatives.

Kurum’s primary rival in the upcoming local elections scheduled for March 31, incumbent Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has staunchly opposed the canal plans.

İmamoğlu called the project a "big mistake," welcoming a court’s decision on Feb. 13 to cancel the zoning plans for the artificial waterway.

Despite these setbacks, the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure reportedly included the project in its 2024-2028 strategic plan earlier this month, estimating a construction cost of 56.176 billion TL (1.74 billion dollars) and aiming for around halfway completion by 2028.

Moreover, AKP Istanbul organization head Osman Nuri Kabaktepe said in an interview on March 19 that the project was not on the local election agenda because it was not a project of the municipality. "Our ministry has a project called Kanal Istanbul."

During Kurum’s 5-year tenure as Minister of Environment and Urbanization, he fervently supported the megaproject, describing it as “The freedom project of our Bosphorus. It is one of the civilization projects of our Istanbul.”

Kanal Istanbul has also been a longstanding wish of President Erdoğan, who first announced his pet project in 2011 while serving as prime minister, referring to it as a “dream coming true.”

Several different Sultans have suggested plans to build an alternative waterway along the Bosphorus in the last 500 years, with the last attempt occurring in 1863.

In addition to the waterway itself, Kanal Istanbul envisions the development of a new multimillion-inhabited city, which has sparked massive speculation by investors along its proposed route.

However, critics warn that the canal’s construction could have severe ecological consequences, including destroying biodiversity and freshwater sources and potentially disrupting the hydrological balance of the connected seas.

(English version by Wouter Massink)