The controversial Kanal Istanbul project, dubbed by President Erdoğan as a “crazy project,” is ready to be launched amid reactions from the opposition as well as scientists.  

The Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Cahit Tarhan announced on Monday that Kanal Istanbul will be an alternative to Bosphorus and will ensure the safety of the megacity. Tarhan, aware of the criticism of prominent scientists, remarked that they don’t have direct knowledge about the subject but that the project has been prepared with great care. 

Well-known geologists, architects, climatologists, environmental engineers, and activists have opposed the project ever since Erdoğan announced it in 2011, saying that Kanal Istanbul, along with the third bridge and the “New Airport,” would bring an end to Istanbul. 

By cutting down valuable forests, drying up water resources critical for the mega city, and killing endemic species, the combined impact of these projects will result in an immense construction frenzy in the northern part of Istanbul, not to mention the effects on climate change. Officially, the megacity has a population of 16 million. The addition of new housing to the north will bring an additional two million people.

The government always ignored these warnings, as well as the risk the Kanal will bring when the expected earthquake happens. Prof. Naci Görür, geologist and earthquake expert, warned that the Kanal Istanbul project exacerbates the damage that the city is likely to face in a few decades from a predicted high-magnitude earthquake. 

In Erdoğan’s mind, Kanal Istanbul will be a boost to the staggering economy, but more importantly, it will be a way to change the direction of capital, writes journalist Bahadır Özgür: “Kanal Istanbul is the story of Turkish capitalism as well as political Islam’s neoliberal transformation.” 

Since the project was announced, real estate speculation has skyrocketed. Lately, the news was that Seyha Moza, the mother of Şeyh Temim bin Hamed el-Sani, who happens to be the Emir of Qatar, has established a company and bought 44 acres of land where Kanal Istanbul is to be built. So far, nobody has refuted this claim. 

Kanal Istanbul is not only critical for Erdoğan financially. It also represents a political battlefield in which he wishes to beat his opponents, in this case the new opposition Istanbul Metropolitan Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu. 

In the beginning of December, harsh words between the two leaders were exchanged. While Erdoğan pointed out that Kanal Istanbul “will be a big splash in the world” and scolded İmamoğlu “to sit down and mind his own business,” İmamoğlu, who usually counters claims in a mild manner, replied sharply: “We will not say yes to any project that some want to make a splash out of but which will be a betrayal of Istanbulites.” İmamoğlu went on to say that he was chosen not to sit around, but do his job, which entails promoting the rights and interests of people.

Erdoğan has signaled that he will move forward aggressively with the Kanal Istanbul project, just as he did for several other mega projects. But for the first time, İmamoğlu has stood up decisively against this. Before the local elections, he promised to do so. However, what will İmamoğlu and his party, the CHP, do when heavy machinery enters to excavate? Does he have the power stand up against this unlawful act, or will he simply say that they will “seek their rights in court”? Since Turkish courts are a mechanism of the government, what can he achieve?

It seems that Kanal Istanbul will be the second battlefield for both Erdoğan and İmamoğlu, after the re-run of the local elections on June 23. İmamoğlu won a great victory then, and he will win a greater one if he succeeds in stopping the “crazy project” called Kanal Istanbul.  The battlefield of Istanbul will also have a great effect on the upcoming presidential elections.