Kanal Istanbul project kicks off with bridge construction despite environmental concerns

President Erdoğan on June 26 held a groundbreaking ceremony for a bridge planned as part of Kanal Istanbul, an artificial canal project that has been drawing environmental concerns. During the ceremony, Erdoğan responded to the main opposition's remarks on not paying those involved in the project when it wins the elections, saying, "They'll get this money from you by force through international arbitration."

Protesters hold banners against Kanal Istanbul during a protest on June 26. "The canal is destruction," reads one.

Duvar English - Reuters

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on June 26 launched a $15 billion canal project supposedly intended to relieve pressure on the busy Bosphorus Strait by laying the foundations of a bridge over the planned route.

Critics of what Erdoğan dubbed his "crazy project" when he revealed Kanal Istanbul a decade ago question the viability of a waterway running 45 km (28 miles) through marshland and farms on the western edge of Istanbul and say it will damage the environment.

"We view Kanal Istanbul as a project to save Istanbul's future," Erdoğan told a ceremony. "We are opening a new page in the history of Turkey's development."

Construction workers poured cement into the foundations of the 1.6 km bridge as a crowd waved Turkish flags. Erdoğan said the canal would take six years to complete.

The government says it is increasingly hazardous for tankers to wind their way between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea down the congested Bosphorus, which divides the European and Asian halves of Istanbul, a city of 15 million people.

Already 43,000 ships pass through every year, far more than the 25,000 the government considers safe, causing longer and longer waiting times. By 2050, it is estimated that the number will rise to 78,000.

Nevertheless, a survey suggests most citizens oppose the project, as does Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu and the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), to which he belongs. Critics say it would destroy a marine ecosystem and endanger some of the city's freshwater supply.

Senior bankers told Reuters in April that some of Turkey's biggest banks were reluctant to finance the canal due to environmental concerns and investment risks.

Russia is also concerned that the canal might not be covered by the 1936 Montreux Convention, which restricts the passage of non-Black Sea states' warships through the Bosphorus.

İmamoğlu had dismissed the ceremony as a face-saving stunt for a project that has been slow to materialize, partly due to economic difficulties. He said the bridge was part of a highway project unrelated to the canal. 



On June 13, İmamoğlu forced workers to evacuate the building site at the Sazlıdere Bridge that was under the mayor’s jurisdiction, calling it illegal. 

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has threatened to cut ties and not pay those who plan to get involved with the project if his CHP party eventually gains control of the government. “We will block them from investing in Turkey,” he said.

In response, Erdoğan said on June 26 that they have no choice but to make the payment.

"They are threatening investors and banks and even countries interested in this project. They'll get this money from you by force through international arbitration," Erdoğan said.