In a blaze of publicity, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan laid a foundation stone close to Istanbul, starting the construction of a 45-kilometer canal linking the Black and Marmara seas. Erdogan declared the project would usher in a new era for Istanbul and for Turkey.
“This going to be a brand-new page in Turkey’s development. On the path to this development, we will leap forward," he said, adding, "This will save Istanbul’s Bosphorus waterway.”
The canal will provide an alternative route from the Bosphorus, which cuts through Turkey's biggest city, Istanbul, and is one of the world’s busiest waterways.
Erdogan said the channel would offer a more efficient, faster and safer passage. But this month, Istanbul’s opposition mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, voiced alarm.
"I am sweating when I talk about this channel, because I can feel this is a nightmare, I can feel it deep inside," he said. "Because I listened to tens of briefings from the scientists who are all warning against it.”
The mayor warned that the project threatens the city's water supplies and risks wider environmental consequences in the region's delicate balance of interconnected seas.
Marine biologist Cemal Saydam, contending that the government was ignoring the scientists, said such concerns were well-founded.
“If you are connecting two marine bodies, you have to ask the opinion of marine scientists, which they have not done," Saydam said. "Scientifically, it's going to devastate the Sea of Marmara for sure, and it's going to devastate the Black Sea for sure, and it's going to change the whole water budget of the Mediterranean Sea, as well, because there are interconnected seas.“
The government dismisses such warnings, claiming it has carried out the necessary research. But most of Turkey's leading banks are refusing to finance the canal, with an estimated cost of up to $65 billion, citing international commitments to support only environmentally sustainable projects.
The canal also is a point of tension with Russia. Erdogan has said the canal is not covered by the 1936 International Montreux Convention. The convention limits foreign warships' size and their access to the Black Sea to 21 days.
Moscow considers the convention vital to limiting NATO’s naval presence and maintaining the sea as its sphere of influence. NATO-Russian tensions have been rising since Russia's occupation of Ukrainian territory in early 2014.
While questions remain over whether the funds exist to complete the canal, Zaur Gasimov of Germany's Bonn University said Ankara sees the project as a bargaining chip with Moscow.
“That would open certain leverage for Ankara," Gasimov said. "That would open a new field for the negotiation between Moscow and Ankara, and that gives new possibilities for Ankara to promote its interests in its interaction with Russia.”
Analysts say the importance of access to the Black Sea is likely to grow in coming years, as NATO-Russia tensions escalate over Ukraine.
Next week, the United States is scheduled to carry out a major naval exercise with Ukraine in the Black Sea.