The Bosporus, which divides Europe from Asia, is one of the busiest waterways in the world. Connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, which in turn enters the Dardanelles, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean, the Bosporus is transited annually by almost 50,000 ships—three times the number that transit the Suez Canal and four times the Panama Canal’s traffic.
The prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has proposed building a canal through the western (European) part of the city of Istanbul to parallel the Bosporus.The Bosporus, which divides Europe from Asia, is one of the busiest waterways in the world. Connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, which in turn enters the Dardanelles, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean, the Bosporus is transited annually by almost 50,000 ships—three times the number that transit the Suez Canal and four times the Panama Canal’s traffic.
The prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has proposed building a canal through the western (European) part of the city of Istanbul to parallel the Bosporus. His plan, revealed in a speech in late April, would alleviate much of the congestion in the Bosporus, which is crisscrossed by ferries and tour boats, and is used by local fishing craft as well as the mass of merchant ships passing to and from the Black Sea ports of Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine. Warships also transit the Turkish straits but, like merchant ships, are subject to strict regulations imposed by the Montreux Treaty of 1936 (see below).
The proposed canal would be about 27 miles long, some 500 feet wide (unlike the Bosporus being 800 feet wide at its narrowest point), and more than 80 feet deep. It would be a relatively straight, sea-level canal capable of accommodating any ship afloat.
The estimated cost is $10 billion with a target completion of 2023—two years for studies, drawing up plans, and obtaining financing; and eight to ten years to build. In announcing his proposal, the prime minister said that it would be “one of the greatest projects of the century.”1 The Bosporus has seen several major engineering accomplishments in the recent past: Two vehicle bridges, completed in 1973 and 1988, now span it, and a train tunnel is being dug beneath it. The tunnel—named Marmaray from combining the name of the Sea of Marmara with ray, the Turkish word for rail—is due for completion in 2013, although artifacts and seafloor ruins may delay the project.
As with any innovative proposal, the idea immediately revealed supporters and opponents. Advocates of the canal point to the several tanker collisions and explosions within the twisting channel and treacherous currents of the Bosporus. And often up to 100 ships at a time are in the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara waiting to pass through.
Constructing the canal would employ thousands of workers for several years—Turkey has an unemployment rate of about 10 percent—and new apartments as well as industrial, business, and shopping areas would be built along the canal, which would be crossed by several vehicle bridges. A third airport for Istanbul also would be constructed in the area. The airport, as well as new housing and other structures, would be built on fill land created from the soil dug for the canal.
Finally, because a new canal would not be governed by the Montreux Convention, the Turkish government could charge tolls, which are not permitted for Bosporus transit. Because use of the canal would be a faster route than the Bosporus. The cost of time lost by ships waiting to pass through the Bosporus has been estimated at $1.4 billion per year.
Most of the land through which the canal would be dug would be appropriated by the government and the owners paid. As opponents point out, many families would have to be relocated. Thus, some see major social implications from the canal as well as probable demographic, economic, and environmental problems.
Critic Oktay Ekinci, the former head of the Turkish Chamber of Architects, declared: “The Istanbul Canal disregards the urbanization balances in metropolitan plans, turns upside down the targets of city planning and creates a scary ‘zoning coup.’” One government official estimated that the canal would increase Istanbul’s population from the current 17 million to 25 million.2
The alternative to a new canal, according to its critics, is to construct an oil pipeline across the existing European isthmus. Possibly connecting to pipelines in Black Sea countries, it would be a faster and safer means of moving oil to the Sea of Marmara. But the construction of a major pipeline across Turkey, and possibly into several nations, raises its own set of problems—especially political—and tankers still would be needed to ship the oil from the pipeline terminus at the Sea of Marmara. Of course, the pipeline could not carry the vast amount of non-petroleum cargoes that go north and south through the Bosporus.
The concept of a canal across the area is not new. Such a notion was voiced several times during the Ottoman period (1453–1923), and as recently as 1994 the Turkish prime minister floated the idea. Today, however, Prime Minister Erdo?gan has the political clout as well as the will to take on the project. While he revealed the proposal on 27 April as campaigning was beginning for Turkey’s June elections, it certainly was more than a traditional politician’s blue-sky promise for the future (although Erdo?gan has expressed many of those, too).
The prime minister himself, in a self-effacing moment, has called the canal “a crazy project.” Such crazy projects have led to some of the modern wonders of the world. Newspaper columnist Yusuf Kanli has written:
Will the Erdogan period be remembered with the Canal Istanbul project? Why not? If Erdogan can indeed launch such a project and Turkey finds a way to finance its construction, irrespective of whether he stays or not in power to see its completion, he will definitely be remembered as the “visionary leader” who had the dream of such a gigantic project.3
In many respects, the Istanbul canal appears to be a “crazy project” whose time has come.
2. Serikan Demirtas, “Canal raises Montreux doubt,” Hürriyet Daily News, 29 April 2011, p. 4.
3. Yusuf Kanli, “Now Erdogan Has a Dream as Well,” Hürriyet Daily News, 27 April 2011, p. 10.
The Conventional Means of Transit
The Montreux Convention was approved in 1936 to govern ship transits of the Turkish straits because of the failure of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The earlier agreement had demilitarized the straits and permitted unrestricted naval as well as civilian traffic to pass through the straits, which bisect Turkish territory. In the early 1930s, Turkish concerns over national security, and especially Italian expansion in several areas, led the Turkish government to call for a conference of the nations that had signed the 1923 agreement.
The response from Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Great Britain, Japan, and the Soviet Union was favorable, and their representatives met in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1936. All of the countries had been party to the earlier agreement or had interests in the area because of their participation in World War I operations in the Levant area. Italy and the United States, although invited, refused to participate in the meeting. After extensive negotiations, the new agreement came into force on 9 November 1936. Australia and Germany did not ratify the treaty, and Japan did so with reservations.
Still in effect today with some amendments, the convention places major restrictions on the passage of warships of non–Black Sea powers as well as naval ships of local states. The Soviet Union at various times under the leadership of Joseph Stalin attempted to gain joint control of the straits with Turkey. His strong-arm tactics backfired when, beginning in 1947, Turkey accepted economic and military aid from the United States, and in 1952 Turkey joined the anti-Soviet North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Many Western naval analysts believed that when the Soviet Union began building aircraft-carrying warships in the 1960s, they were given the “antisubmarine cruiser” (protivolodochnyy kreyser) designation as a deception to avoid provisions of the Montreux Convention’s restrictions on aircraft carriers passing through the Turkish straits. The convention, however, does not restrict Black Sea powers from sending carriers through the straits. The only limitations are that they can be accompanied by just two destroyers and that they cannot operate aircraft while in passage.
Probably the most severe restriction for the Soviet Union/Russia has been on submarine transits of the Turkish straits. Submarines must remain on the surface, and those sailing south from the Black Sea must enter a dockyard before returning to their base. Thus, Soviet/Russian submarines operating in the Mediterranean normally deploy to that area from the Northern Fleet, not the Black Sea Fleet.
The new Istanbul canal would not be governed by the Montreux Convention, which would remain in effect for the Bosporus and the remainder of the Turkish straits unless further modified. Obviously the Turkish government would seek tolls for the canal to help repay its construction costs, and possibly make the canal and the Bosporus one-way transits to avoid collisions. Thus, ships could be forced to pay tolls traveling in one direction. But such a move obviously would be opposed by other Black Sea powers as well as by shipping firms.