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Turkey To Begin Work On Massive Canal Project

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is betting on huge infrastructure projects to secure his country's future. A decade ago, he announced his biggest proposal yet - a new canal to the Black Sea. Some critics predicted the Canal Istanbul project would be just too big and too controversial to proceed. But as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, Erdogan recently announced they'd soon begin accepting bids to get the project underway, even as major Turkish bankers have shied away.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Erdogan has long been known for his love of big infrastructure - a third bridge across the Bosporus Strait, gigantic new mosques, a massive airport, even a failed project to build a giant stadium to attract the Olympics to Istanbul. But Erdogan's biggest construction dream, the one he fondly called his crazy project, is a canal roughly parallel to the city's natural waterway, the Bosporus Strait, that would create a second passage between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. In April, the Turkish president said preparations for the project were largely complete. He called the 28-mile canal a new windpipe for the region that would ease congestion on the Bosporus. In typical Erdogan style, he said last month he wasn't concerned by opposition to the project.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Whether you want it or not, we are starting to now Istanbul. We will do it, and it will be for the use of our nation.

KENYON: But a project like this requires lots of money. And top bankers told the Reuters news agency that they're concerned about environmental issues and investment risks. Oceanographers warn that the canal could disrupt nearly a third of Istanbul's freshwater supply. And Istanbul's mayor, opposition politician Ekrem Imamoglu, recently called it a potential environmental disaster and an expensive one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EKREM IMAMOGLU: (Through interpreter) With despair, I want to announce that I wouldn't be mistaken if I said this project could cost $80 billion.

KENYON: Risk management consultant Yoruk Isik, who has a long-standing love of the Bosporus and the ships that pass through it, says the only source of funding he can imagine for such a project would be China. But even Beijing might not be interested.

YORUK ISIK: China has already Mediterranean ports like Piraeus, for example. It already has access to Russian railways to reach Europe. Why make this investment here such a giant investment where the returns are very questionable?

KENYON: Isik says it's astonishing to him how few studies have been done on how much revenue this project would bring in compared with its huge cost, as well as the impact it will have on the lives of millions of Istanbul residents.

ISIK: They're going to be living on an island. Every highway, every major road has to become a bridge crossing that canal, every water line, every sewer line. This project, if it becomes true, it's an endless project. It will go on for not years, possibly decades.

KENYON: A second waterway could also raise questions about Turkey's obligations under the 1936 Montreux Treaty, which guarantees passage through the Bosporus Strait for other countries' vessels. Isik says Russia in particular won't stand for any changes to those rules. Erdogan, who's expected to stand for reelection in 2023, if not sooner, says he'd like to see tenders for the canal issued, quote, "very soon." That would put a lot of people to work in advance of the vote. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "LIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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