Turkey intends to build a new waterway to bypass the heavily congested Bosphorus Strait, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced.
The announcement was made during a campaign ahead of Turkish parliamentary elections, in June 2011.
The new canal would cut through government-owned land – mostly undeveloped forest – just west of Istanbul.
"Canal Istanbul" would link the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The new canal would be 150 m wide, 45 km long, with a waterdepth of 25 meter; allowing passage of 300.000 dwt tankers.
The project would require 8 years work; to be completed by 2023. Cost of the project is an estimated US$ 10 billion. It would require 100's million m3 dredging, and would stand shoulder to shoulder with the Panama- and Suez Canal projects.
The Bosphorus is one of the most difficult waterways in the world to navigate: its waterway is twisting from end to end. Four of these turns are blind corners - approaching vessels can't be seen until it is too late. It carries four times the load of either the Panama or Suez canals. Notorious for strong currents, winds, and sudden dense fogs, it is laced with high-tension electric lines, suspension bridges, and a myriad of small craft which ply the Straits.
No one should be trying to navigate this passage without a skilled, experienced pilot - but more than 85 percent of accidents on the straits involve unpiloted vessels. Because these are international waters; the Turks can't force the pilotage issue.
The 3.000 year old city of Istanbul, with 15 million inhabitants, is sprawled along the Bosphorus banks.
About 50.000 ships pass Istanbul every year, including 8.000 oil tankers; 139 million tons of crude oil, 4 million tons of liquefied petroleum gas and 3 million tons of chemicals.
In the past five years, cargo traffic through the Black Sea has risen by nearly 500 %; the flow of oil from the port of Novorossysk has more than doubled.
Ankara, frantic about the hazard posed by increasing energy traffic in the Straits, has in recent years pushed for alternatives; pipelines. Conflicts between ex-Soviet states have demonstrated the vulnerability of these pipelines. The result: More pressure on shipping lanes through the Turkish straits.
From 1982 to 2003 there were 608 shipping accidents on the Bosporus; making it a maritime hotspot.
In 1994, an oil tanker and cargo vessel collided in the Bosporus, spilling 9,000 tons of oil and closing the strait for days as some 20,000 tons of oil burned.
In 1979, the Romanian tanker "Indpendenta" collided with a freighter, spilled or burned 95.000 tons of oil, the wreck was ablaze for weeks.
A disaster in the Bosphorus wouldn't just cripple Istanbul: it could turn off the lights in much of Europe. An oil spill could close the straits for weeks, cutting off a substantial proportion of Europe's energy supplies and causing a worldwide energy crisis.
Most people have never heard of the 1936 Montreux Convention - but a moment's miscalculation in these waters might very well make it infamous
This convention gives Turkey some control over the Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles and regulates passage of merchants and warships. But Turkey cannot simply close the Bosphorus for shipping. Merchant ships normally have the "freedom of innocent passage". Not a thing Turkey can do about that; the risk is theirs.
Erdogan's unveiling of the plan, which has long been dreamed about by Turkish strategic thinkers, came across in large part as a political stunt, and the political opposition dismissed it as such, citing the cost and unrealistic nature of this still half-baked proposal.
But -as discussed above- the "Canal Istanbul"may well be worth a second thought.
Marc Van de Velde