Erdogan’s ‘megalomaniac’ projects

The value and utility of three mega projects developed by the Turkish government is under question.

The 'Channel Istanbul' project may have disastrous environmental consequences, writes Aktar [AFP]

Turkey will be holding local elections on March 30 amid a huge graft and corruption scandal. Over 11 years of Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rule, be it locally or at central level, have been marked by massive infrastructural projects.

As the ruling party and its uncontested boss proudly and incessantly utter, the landscape has been literally transformed by roads, bridges, airports, public housing, shopping malls, pipelines, hydroelectric power plants, and soon, two nuclear power plants. Coincidentally, it happens that various corruption charges engage these very projects that usually prompt sizeable funds.

But it looks as though all these are still insufficient to realise the AKP’s dream of magnificence and prominence for Turkey. The dream requires more cities, mosques, bridges, airports and even an artificial strait proudly called the “crazy project“. Let’s look at three of them: A new gigantic airport, a new gigantic mosque and that “crazy project”.  

The “world’s largest airport” is a questionable project. The consortium which won the bidding tender has set forth a three-stage plan. In the first stage, the airport will start servicing some 90 million passengers a year in 2019, with the addition of extra runways bringing it to the next stage to take on some 120 million passengers annually. At the third stage, the airport will be able to serve some 150 million passengers a year.

The new Istanbul airport will stretch over 7,659 hectares of land, of which 6,172 hectares are forest. This land is covered with pine, spruce, oak, beech, juniper, redbud, willow and poplar trees. It is home to a rich variety of wildlife with hundreds of thousands of birds migrating over this very region and the nearby Terkos Lake and other smaller wetlands serving as birds’ nesting and resting grounds throughout the year.

The destruction of so much forest land seems pointless, especially since it is doubtful that the project needs so much space. High traffic airports like the one in Atlanta, which services some 95 million passengers annually, is built on just 1,900 hectares. Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport manages to accommodates 45 million passengers yearly on 1,178 hectares. It is also questionable whether the airport needs all six planned runways. By comparison, Heathrow Airport is the busiest in Europe manages to do its work with just two runways. 

Secondly, Erdogan’s big mosque is set to be on top of Istanbul’s Camlica hill. Even pious people oppose the project, as superfluous, kitsch and as an insipid replica of the Blue Mosque. The mosque reminds me of Saddam Hussein’s three gigantic mosques, which were laid out after the war with Iran and the first Gulf War: The Umm al-Maarik or Mother of All Battles Mosque, the Ar-Rahman and the Great Saddam Mosque. The latter was intended to be five times as large as the Umm al-Maarik but has fallen off the agenda.

Umm al-Maarik is in itself a legend. Its four outer minarets, each 43 metres high, came up against the 43 days of “Desert Storm” battle of the US Army. As for the four 37 metre-high inner minarets, which are attached to the outer minarets, they celebrate April 1937, the birth month and year of Saddam. Let’s wait and see which secrets will be enshrined in the Turkish prime minister’s megamosque.

And finally, we come to the “crazy project”. Called “Channel Istanbul”, this is an artificial waterway that will connect the Black Sea and Marmara Sea with its banks filled with trade centres and concrete housing clusters. This artificial channel will affect not only its immediate environment but also the whole area from the Black Sea to Dardanelles and even the Aegean Sea. In addition to Turkey, it will have a massive environmental impact on the Black Sea riparian nations, Greece as well as countries crossed by the Danube, Dnieper, Dniester, Don, Volga etc…that are feeding the Black Sea.

According to Professor Cemal Saydam, a veteran oceanographer from Hacettepe University in Ankara, if the project materialises, the balance will be reversed between the cold and fresh waters of the Black Sea and the warm and salty waters flowing from the Mediterranean Sea across Marmara Sea into the Black Sea.

The Black Sea is approximately 30 centimetres higher than the Marmara Sea but there are two-way streams between the two, through the natural channel, the Bosphorus. The one-way tap of the Channel will force the Black Sea to constantly supply fresh water to Marmara Sea without being able to be fed by the reverse streams that exist in the Bosphorus supplying the Black Sea with warm and salty waters from Marmara.

That will be the beginning of an irreversible disaster as the Black Sea will be emptied twice as fast with two taps while the flow rates and capacities of the rivers that feed the Black Sea stay the same. While the Black Sea dries up and disappears, the warmth and the salinity of Marmara Sea and the Mediterranean will change. The Marmara Sea will become a putrefying water mass irreversibly altered, with devastating consequences for marine and urban life. The consequences of the “crazy project” will be crazy disasters.

What these three projects have in common is that they can potentially have a detrimental effect on Istanbul. They are all to be constructed in the vicinity of the mega city, cornered in a tiny territory between the Black and Marmara seas, inhabited already by some 14 million people who have no breathing space left. Erdogan’s dream of magnificence is poised to become a nightmare instead.

Cengiz Aktar is Senior Scholar at Istanbul Policy Center. As a former director at the United Nations where he spent 22 years of his professional life, Aktar is one of the leading advocates of Turkey’s integration into the EU.