MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In Turkey, even President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has described his latest mega project as crazy. He wants to dig a waterway between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Of course, there already is a route between the seas, the Bosporus. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports Erdogan plans to move forward despite warnings the project is not viable and could do significant ecological damage.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Erdogan began talking about Canal Istanbul back in 2011, saying it would reduce the risk of marine accidents on the Bosporus. Some of his proposed projects have languished as Turkey suffered through a 2018 currency crisis. But this year, Erdogan renewed his call for the so-called crazy canal to be dug, saying in comments posted to YouTube that no matter what happens with other projects, this 25-to-30-mile canal, estimated to cost more than $11 billion, will become a reality.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Non-English language spoken).
KENYON: "No doubt above all other projects," he said, "this hundred-year project, my crazy project, the Canal Istanbul project, a tender will be made as soon as possible." In short order, a tender was issued for a relatively small part of the project. It may not have gone quite according to plan because the transportation minister who issued it was quickly sacked without explanation. The project has drawn some powerful opponents, including Istanbul's mayor. It has also raised doubts among the public. Yoruk Isik sits on a bench on the banks of the Bosporus explaining the types of ships passing by. Isik is part of an informal group of Bosporus ship spotters who trade photos and information about the marine traffic transiting the strait. He says Erdogan's plan to shift oil and gas tankers and cargo ships to the new canal where he could charge transit fees may not be realistic. A treaty from 1936 already guarantees them passage through the Bosporus. Analysts say it would be hard to convince them to give that up for the canal. But Isik says what may be even more important for Erdogan is the prospect of another massive construction project. He says Erdogan's allies tend to benefit greatly from such projects.
YORUK ISIK: But, again, like, you see the hunger for construction and, like, how much the construction plays a role to turn the wheels of the current Turkish political system's beneficiaries.
KENYON: Isik jokes that if the Bosporus didn't exist, the canal would have tremendous value, like the Panama or Suez Canals.
ISIK: If there was no waterway here, if you open this place and then you will have access to Russian ports and into the Caspian. But now here there is a wide and manageable waterway. So again (laughter)...
KENYON: A report by a panel of scientists and academics says the canal would mean a major loss of agricultural and forest lands and warns of potential tainting of groundwater supplies and increased risk of flooding. For artist and photographer Serkan Taycan, it will mean an end to the walking trail along the route that he says has been used by thousands of urban hikers since 2013. Taycan says the canal would also create large amounts of lucrative waterfront property. Turkish media are already reporting that a Cabinet minister, who also happens to be Erdogan's son-in-law, bought land along the route. Taycan says a property boom on the banks of a new canal could only cause more problems for a city already choking on pollution, traffic and other consequences of overcrowding.
SERKAN TAYCAN: Whilst the canal is going to be built, it's not just a canal, as we all know. It is a urbanization project to move millions of people to the area.
KENYON: But Turkey's most powerful politician remains the canal's biggest fan.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.