Two big canal digging plans are under way: the Interoceanic-Nicaragua Canal and the Istanbul Canal. It may have escaped general attention, but one of the plans the protesters at Taksim Square aimed against is the construction of the Istanbul Canal. It is one of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s super city projects, the others being: a third bridge over the Bosporus and a new airport for Istanbul. Mr Erdoğan announced this “crazy plan” already at a party rally for the 2011 general elections. It is not a new plan , but the revival of a plan proposed several times in history, from the 16th century by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan Murad III, Sultan Mehmed IV, Sultan Mustafa III, and Mahmud II and in 1994 by the then Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit.
The new canal will dissect the European side of Istanbul into two and thus create an island between the continents of Asia and Europe. The new gateway would bypass the current Bosporus. The intended completion date for the project is 2023 for the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic. The canal aims to minimize shipping traffic in the Istanbul Strait. Recent development of the oilfields in the Black-Sea region has increased maritime transport dramatically, using the Bosporus as a liquid pipeline, creating huge dangers for health and the environment.
The construction of this new canal brings into focus the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regimes of the Straits, which regulates the transit through the Straits Region. Will this new Canal undermine the principles of transit and transportation liberty, as is stipulated in Article 1 and 2. Is it time to revise the Montreux convention adapting it to modern views and situations? Turkey is a key player in the Mediterranean-Black Sea region. Its position may change with a new canal with a different regime, allowing aircraft carrier groups to the Black sea without any international control. Russia already expressed its fear for increased an American influence, since Turkey is an NATO member.
On the other side of the globe, President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua announced the ratification of the Exclusive Agreement with HKND (Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co.) Group to develop the Nicaragua Canal and Development Project. The Agreement grants HKND Group exclusive rights for the planning, design construction, operation and management of the Nicaragua canal and other potential projects. It includes an interoceanic canal, oil pipeline, an interoceanic “dry canal” freight railroad, two deep water ports, two international airports and a series of free trade zones along the canal route. HKND Group is a privately-held international infrastructure development firm, headquartered in Hong Kong.
This also is a plan with a long history. It existed in various forms for at least two centuries, with heavy involvement of the United States. The construction of a second canal, substantially larger than the expanded Panama Canal, is necessary to fulfill the requirements of ship trade demands of the 21st century. The Nicaragua Canal will be ideally positioned for accommodating growing transoceanic container shipping, between Latin America and Asia. It will also be the shortest passage for maritime transport between Asia and the US East coast. The recent boom in US natural gas production will lead to developing LNG export terminals in the US Gulf Coast.
There are uncertainties in this project. Will the Chinese business partners create a privatized enclave in the middle of Nicaragua, with a canal commission, acting independently for the government in Managua? A comparison with the Panama Canal might be useful. Both canals fulfill presidential dreams and aspirations in earthquake sensitive regions. It might all end in a big catastrophe.
A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- Acosta, M.L., "Encroaching upon Indigenous Land: Nicaragua and the 'Dry Canal'", in S. Jentoft, H. Minde and R. Nilsen (eds.), Indigenous Peoples: Resource Management and Global Rights, Delft, Eburon, 2003, pp. 215-228.
- Clayton, L.A., The Nicaragua Canal in the Nineteenth Century: Prelude to American Empire in the Caribbean, 1987.
- Keasbey, L.M., The Nicaragua Canal and the Monroe Doctrine: a Political History of Isthmus Transit, with Special Reference to the Nicaragua Canal Project and the Attitude of the United States Government thereto, New York, NY, Putnam, 1896.