The government of Turkey announced plans on Saturday to move ahead with construction of a controversial new shipping canal linking the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, intended to take pressure off the existing Bosporus.
The plan comes just three months after retailers and consumers worldwide gained a new appreciation for the delicate balance of global logistics flows when Evergreen Marine’s “Ever Given” containership infamously jammed itself sideways in the Suez Canal, backing up freight for weeks.
Turkey’s new canal would also handle cargo ships sailing in the eastern Mediterranean, although it would affect traffic visiting ports far north of Egypt, located in nations such as Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, and Turkey. Currently, ships sailing from those locations must pass through the 19-mile Bosporus Straits located at Istanbul, Turkey, where crowding often forces vessels to anchor and wait their turn.
In comparison, Canal Istanbul would run for 28 miles, although about one-third of that distance would run through existing natural waterways. Turkish leaders say the enormous public works project would pay for itself through fees charged to ships using the new pathway. "With the Canal, Turkey will be among the world's leading logistics powers. 500 thousand people will be employed, and an economic contribution of 28 billion dollars will be made. Turkey will become a playmaker in global maritime trade,” Adil Karaismailoğlu, Turkey’s Minister of Transport and Infrastructure, said in a release.
Despite those plans, critics have said for years that the government has over-estimated ship transit revenues and would likely face steep challenges in financing the work, due to environmental impacts like displacing residents currently living on the land and destroying two of the city’s precious water reservoirs.
“Canal Istanbul has been undertaken to pump money toward companies friendly to the government and as a real estate scheme. The project is not needed for commercial or naval maritime purposes,” Yörük Işık, a scholar with the Middle East Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan think tank, said in an analysis.
The project could also run afoul of political considerations because it may allow Turkey to sidestep the Montreux Convention, a 1936 agreement that guarantees the free passage of maritime traffic through the Bosporus but restricts military ships, according to the Middle East Institute.
Despite those challenges, Turkish officials remained optimistic about the project’s chances and its impact on the country’s economy. "One of the most important pillars of Turkey's growth vision in the last 19 years is the claim we have made in terms of our transportation, communication and logistics infrastructure,” Karaismailoğlu said. “As a country that dominates the most important trade corridors of the developing world, Turkey will become the world's most important logistics centre with the Canal Istanbul. Thus, the Black Sea will turn into a trade lake for Turkey."