Erdogan pushes ‘crazy’ Istanbul canal dream despite opposition

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaves after the Global Refugee Forum at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 17, 2019. (Reuters)
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Updated 27 December 2019

Erdogan pushes ‘crazy’ Istanbul canal dream despite opposition

  • Last year Turkey effectively paused the project
  • The 400 meter-wide canal planned to the west of Istanbul would connect the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara

ISTANBUL: President Tayyip Erdogan has revived plans to dig a canal on the edge of Istanbul despite opposition from hundreds of petitioners and the city’s new mayor against the kind of mega project that has come to define Turkey’s economic boom and bust.
Last year Turkey effectively paused the project, estimated to cost 75 billion lira ($12.6 billion), as the economy tipped into recession. But in recent weeks Erdogan has put building the 45-km (28-mile) ‘Kanal Istanbul’ atop his domestic agenda, raising concerns from environmentalists and architects.
The 400 meter-wide canal planned to the west of Istanbul would connect the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara, which eventually runs into the Mediterranean. It would ease shipping congestion on the picturesque Bosphorus, a natural strait that intersects Turkey’s largest city.
A cargo ship ran aground Friday on the Bosphorus, among the world’s busiest waterways, a rare such accident that Erdogan says the canal can prevent.

POLITICAL DIVISIONS:
Erdogan says the canal is needed to ease traffic on the Bosphorus and protect its historic structures, calling it an “environmental salvation.”
He first mentioned the idea in 2011, dubbing it his “crazy project.” But a currency crisis in 2018 prompted Turkey to freeze investments in large projects.
Kanal Istanbul returned to the president’s agenda in November and sparked a confrontation with Istanbul’s new mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition party.
Imamoglu, seen by some as a likely future presidential candidate, dealt Erdogan’s ruling party a stinging defeat when he was elected this year. He has emerged as the project’s chief opponent, warning it will cost too much and wreak environmental havoc.

ENVIRONMENTAL RISKS:
Istanbul’s rapid growth and its lack of green space are a major public concern, and plans to build over a park in the city in 2013 triggered nationwide protests.
The proposed canal would run through a lagoon whose ecosystem, vital for marine animals and migratory birds, would be destroyed, according to the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB).
The group says it would demolish two basins that provide nearly a third of the city’s fresh water; increase the salinity of underground streams, harming agricultural land as well to the west; and raise oxygen levels in the Black Sea.

FUNDING QUESTIONS:
The canal is the latest in a series of massive construction projects fueled by cheap foreign credit that drove a mostly booming economy under Erdogan’s 17-year rule.
It is unclear how the canal would be financed. The central government has pitched a build-operate-transfer model but, failing that, has said it would tap its budget.
Bankers have privately raised questions whether some big Turkish lenders would finance the project.
In September, six Turkish banks signed a United Nations initiative (UNEP FI) requiring them to assess the social and environmental impact of a project before extending financing.

BLACK SEA CONCERNS:
For Russia, Ukraine and other Black Sea states, the canal raises tricky questions about shipping and naval passage.
The 1936 Montreux Convention gives Turkey control over the straits within its borders, and during peacetime guarantees access for civilian vessels. It also limits access of naval warships, helping to protect the Black Sea from militarization.
But a Turkish official said on Thursday the Montreux Convention would not cover the canal.
“Kanal Istanbul would possibly open the door to US warships in the Black Sea. That is the fear in Moscow,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. ($1 = 5.9343 liras)


Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

Updated 11 August 2020

Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

  • Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast
  • The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors

QARTABA, Lebanon: Three firefighters. One Lebanese family. The same restless wait. Rita Hitti has not slept a wink since the Beirut port blast, when her firefighting son, nephew and son-in-law went missing.
“In one piece or several, we want our sons back,” she told AFP from the Hitti family’s home in the mountain town of Qartaba, north of Beirut.
“We have been waiting for the remains for six days,” she added, dark circles under her eyes.
Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast that killed 160 people and wounded at least 6,000 others across town.
They were among the first rescuers at the scene. They have not been heard of since.
Near the entrance to their Qartaba home, the three men are praised as “heroes” in a huge banner unfurled over a wall.
The double exposure shot shows them in the foreground dressed sharply in suits.
In the background, the blast’s now-infamous pink plume rises above their heads as they try to douse a fire.
An eerie calm filled the stone-arched living room, where dozens of relatives and neighbors gathered around Rita, the mother of Najib Hitti.
The women were mum, the men whispered between themselves, the young shuffled in and out of the room, quietly.
Karlen, Rita’s daughter, looked among the most sombre, with her husband Charbel Karam, brother Najib and cousin Charbel all missing.
Sitting next to her mother on the couch, she fought back tears and did not say a single word.
The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors.
The health ministry has said the number of missing stands at less than 20, while the army announced it had lifted five corpses from beneath the rubble.
A large blaze was still ripping through the blast site when the Hittis and other relatives of port employees dashed to the disaster zone to check on their loved ones.
But they were stopped by security forces.
“I told them I would know my boys from their smell,” Rita said she told an officer who barred her from the site.
“Let me enter to search for them and when I whiff their smell I will know where they are,” the mother said she pleaded.
Ever since, her hopes have gradually dwindled, but her anger is boiling.
Lebanese authorities have pledged a swift investigation but the exact cause of the blast remains unclear.
Authorities say it was triggered by a fire of unknown origin that broke out in a port warehouse where a huge pile of highly volatile ammonium nitrate fertilizer had been left unsecured for years.
Whatever the cause of the fire was, the popular consensus is that the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of officials in charge of the port as well those who have ruled Lebanon country for decades.
“We gave them heroes and they returned them to us as ‘martyrs’,” Rita said, scoffing at the label officials have used to brand blast casualties.
“What martyrs? What were they protecting? The noxious things (authorities) were hiding in the port?” she asked rhetorically.
“They are martyrs of treachery.”
George, father of Charbel Hitti, also rushed to the blast site to look for his son and relatives after the explosion.
“I started to scream their names: Najib, Charbel... I was like a mad man,” he told AFP.
“We waited until 6 in the morning the next day for clues to what happened,” he said.
“In the end, I started crying.”
He did manage, however, to get one piece of information from a port security official close to the family who was at the scene of the blaze when the firefighting team first arrived on August 4.
The security official had told him that the firefighters were trying to break open the door to the ammonium nitrate warehouse because they could not find the keys before the explosion ripped the whole place apart.
A week has since passed and George said hopes of finding the three men alive have faded.
Assuming they are dead, George said he now wants one thing: “We just want DNA test results that are compatible with those of Charbel, Najib and Charbel,” he said.
“Imagine. This is everything we now wish for.”