Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken the first step in the construction of a canal on the western edge of Istanbul, amid concerns over the environmental and economic effects of the project.
“Today we are opening a new page in the history of Turkey’s development,” Erdogan said on Saturday at a ground-breaking ceremony of Sazlidere Bridge over the planned route.
“We see Canal Istanbul as a project to save the future of Istanbul … to ensure the safety of life and property of Istanbul’s Bosphorus and the citizens around it,” he said.
The government has said that the project will ease ship traffic and reduce the risk of accidents in the Bosphorus Strait – one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes – which links the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea.
Dubbed by Erdogan as his “crazy project” when he first suggested building the canal in 2011, the 45km (28-mile)-long project linking the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea to the west of the Bosphorus includes the construction of new seaports, bridges, businesses, housing districts and artificial lakes.
The canal, estimated to cost $15bn, is expected to be completed within six years, Erdogan said.
“Look, this is not a fountain opening ceremony,” he said at the event. “Today we are laying the foundations of one of the exemplary canals in the world.”
Mustafa Ilicali, a professor on transportation and former member of parliament, told Al Jazeera that marine traffic has risen 72 percent in the Bosphorus since 2005.
“Tankers pose accidents in the narrow strait. Pending vessels pollute the sea and cause emission,” he said.
Muzaffer Bayram, a citizen living in Istanbul, sees the canal as being beneficial for Turkey.
“See these ships waiting? When we have the canal, they will not wait here. Besides they will pay more [to pass through Turkey]. It is for my country’s interest,” he told Al Jazeera.
However, opponents say the canal will cause profound ecological damage in Istanbul, exacerbate the dangers posed by earthquakes, and put the already ailing Turkish economy under the burden of even greater debt.
“Through this new canal, the Black Sea and the Marmara waters will get mixed. This will have ecological consequences and imperil an already tenuous water supply and marine life,” Pinar Giritlioglu, vice president of the Chamber of Urban Planners said.
Ercument Gulemek, a farmer and stockbreeder in Baklali, said that the project will claim some of his village.
“We want to expand the business, build an indoor barn, but we can’t. It’s forbidden. What I do is the only job I know. I can only become a night watchman after these places become settlements,” he told Al Jazeera.
The project’s first structure, the eight-lane, 840-metre (about a half-mile) road bridge, will link to the North Marmara highway that also connects other recent infrastructure projects – a new airport and a third Bosphorus bridge.
This has led Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who represents Turkey’s main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party, to call Saturday’s ceremony an “illusion” that is related to plans for the highway rather than the canal.
“The construction of a bridge here has nothing to do with the canal project. It’s something to do with the road hub,” he told a news conference in Sazlidere on Thursday.
Samuel Ramani, a Middle East analyst, said that while a 15-fold increase in traffic in the Bosphorus during the past half century is a serious issue, it has to be weighed against environmental and geopolitical concerns – including reports that much of the project’s funding will come from China.
“Deviating the congestion in the Bosphorus is a valid argument,” he told Al Jazeera.
“But then other questions are – does that weigh the environmental cost and does it also potentially pose a threat to Turkish sovereignty if the project is [financed] by China?”