Wednesday, 4 May 2011

“Canal Istanbul”: crazy, magnificent or an election fantasy?

Turkish Prime Minister says project will dwarf Panama and Suez canals.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is taking forward what he calls his "crazy and magnificent" plan to make a man made canal connecting the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. An alternative route for the thousands of ships that today use the Bosphorus Straits annually, the ambitious “Canal Istanbul” will be 30 miles long, 25 metres deep and 150 metres wide, and, according to him, an unparalleled feat of engineering “We are building the canal of the century, a project of such immense size that it can't be compared to the Panama or Suez canals," he said.

The canal will turn the city of Istanbul into “two peninsulas and an island,” Erdogan says, and will
see as many as 160 ships a day sailing through it. Declining to give estimates on the Canal Istanbul’s cost or the exact location to avoid land speculation, Erdogan said that planning for the canal will take two years. Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas estimates that the project will cost more than $10 billion and take eight years to build.

"Istanbul will become a city with two seas passing through it," Erdogan announced at an election rally recently.

Turkey wants to keep shipping, particularly tankers, away from the 19 mile long Bosporus that winds through the city of Istanbul and its 12 million inhabitants. A winding and difficult waterway to navigate, the Bosphorus is one of the world’s busiest chokepoints for oil laden ships. About 3 million barrels a day are sent through it on ships. Besides Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania and Georgia use the Straits regularly. Erdogan says that 139m tons of oil, 4m tons of liquefied petroleum gas and 3m tons of chemicals pass through the Bosphorus annually, creating a huge environmental and safety risk to the densely populated city.

"Bosphorus traffic will be reduced to zero," he said. "Water sports will take place on the Bosphorus, transport within the city will be established and Istanbul will return to its former days."

Opposition leaders in Turkey are sceptical about Erdogan’s plan, some dismissing it as an election fantasy or an invitation to corruption. Republican People’s Party head Kemal Kilicdaroglu was dismissive. "This country needs men who think and produce, but not crazy men. This project is not about people. It's about making AK (Erdogan’s party) supporters rich." Nonetheless, environmental groups and analysts have given a cautious green signal to the project, saying it is eminently achievable.

The Istanbul Canal will allow VLCCs to enter the Black Sea, therefore reducing demand for small tankers. “If this canal is built and if the infrastructure in the Black Sea follows in terms of port expansion, bigger vessels could absorb the volumes of smaller ships,” Bloomberg quotes analyst Luis Mateus as commenting. “The canal would also alleviate congestion and have faster transit times, but the industry needs to follow and adapt itself to a change in transport dynamics.”

Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, says he wants to have the project well completed by 2023, the centenary of the declaration of the Turkish Republic. “Turkey deserves a crazy, magnificent project like this by 2023,” he says.

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