Reuters

Officials say the canal will fuel the country's economy. But opponents worry it will add to runaway sprawl and rampant water pollution.

The spiralling unrest that began around Istanbul's Gezi Park this past week has been dramatic enough, but a controversial project that's only beginning in the city's suburbs makes the park's redevelopment look modest indeed. Kanal Istanbul is a plan to cut a new 26-mile waterway through the Thracian Peninsula, on which the city’s European section is located, connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara section of the Mediterranean. 

The canal has been mooted as a project for a long time – for centuries in fact – but until recently the idea had tended to be dismissed as just one of many schemes proposed by the Turkish government that are grandiose but improbable. This May, however, Turkey's deputy prime minister, Ali Babacan, announced that work is due to begin on the new canal this month. The sort of massive infrastructure project Europe hasn't seen since the 19th century, the canal project is now more likely than ever to create a major stand-off between the Turkish government and its discontents.

A map and mock-up of the proposed canal. Images via Kanal Istanbul Projesi.

For the government, the advantages the canal would bring are clear. Currently, the only sea route between the Black Sea and Mediterranean is through the Bosphorus Strait. This 19.5 miles long corridor narrows at some points to a width of just 765 yards. With the straits' waters congested with craft, shipping accidents are not uncommon. The potential consequences of these accidents (oil tankers regularly pass through the Bosphorus) are made more serious by the fact that the straits run through Istanbul's heavily populated heart. Creating a second waterway would ease congestion, not to mention freeing up the beautiful Bosphorus for leisure use. 

The new canal would likely not be covered by a treaty declaring the Bosphorus' waters international, open to all non-military craft from countries not at war with Turkey. Having an alternative, nationally controlled sea route would increase Turkey's regional leverage, both political and economic.

The canal could also help fuel Istanbul's building boom. Construction is currently powering the local economy, thriving while Turkey's neighbors flounder. Istanbul is already spreading fast towards the canal's proposed site. Unconfirmed local rumor has it that the project is sending property values near the proposed canal route skyrocketing, aided by the fact that a third city airport will be built nearby, while a third trans-Bosphorus bridge will direct traffic towards the area.

And there lies the project's key controversy – the canal would only add to the city's unchecked tsunami of sprawl. Istanbul's urban footprint has grown by almost 21 times since 1950 (as this graphic video shows) as new residents have been sucked in from the provinces, but the city's sustainable infrastructure has failed drastically to keep up. Property speculation has seen poorer populations uprooted, historic buildings flattened or threatened and an orgy of new shopping malls, loved by some as an expression of prosperity and loathed by others as evidence of a land and cash grab by the wealthy. Forced through one of the last undeveloped areas around Istanbul, the canal would not only accelerate this process, but also tear through a beautiful stretch of still unspoilt coastline and forest. 

More radically still, the canal could retool the entire region's hydrography. The Black Sea is ecologically quite different from the Mediterranean, its waters colder and less salty. With many major rivers flowing into it, the Black Sea's sole outlet to the ocean (via the Mediterranean) is through the Bosphorus, and the narrowness of the strait had led river silt to build up in its depths, leaving its waters below 150 feet anoxic. The Istanbul isthmus acts as a sort of part-broken dam, leaving the Black Sea 30 centimeters higher than its Mediterranean neighbor, the Sea of Marmara.

Constructing a canal could disrupt this system, increasing water exchange between the Black and Mediterranean Seas and changing the conditions to which their marine life has adapted. It could also see Black Sea levels drop, leaving Russian and Georgian bathers wondering why their beaches suddenly have double the room for sun loungers.

Until recently, it was potential Russian objections that were seen as the major sticking point for the canal's future. But with the past few weeks' events bringing seething resentment at Istanbul's unchecked development to the surface, the canal's government sponsors are now less likely to disregard intense (if not unanimous) local opposition. Every metropolis has at some point seemed to be a hungry leviathan, gobbling up greenery and spitting out concrete, so it's possible that concerns about Istanbul's speedy growth may look quaint in 50 years. Right now, however, anger at what many see as looting rather than development has been brought to fever pitch by brutal police overreaction to protests. With Kanal Istanbul, the Turkish government could be in for a much bigger struggle than it ever expected.

Top image: Anti-government protesters try to extinguish a burning container in Istanbul's Taksim square June 4, 2013. (REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis)

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