Turkey's prime minister on Wednesday announced what he called a "crazy and magnificent" plan to build a new waterway to the Black Sea, promising that the tanker-clogged Bosporus through Istanbul would soon be used for sports and boat trips.
The waterway, to be named "Canal Istanbul," would link the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which leads to the Aegean Sea. It would be between 28 and 31 miles (40 and 45 kilometers) long, some 82 feet (25 meters) deep and around 500 feet (150 meters) wide, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during campaigning ahead of elections on June 12.
"We have today embarked on the greatest project of the century," Erdogan said, adding that it would be a bigger undertaking than the Panama or Suez canals.
The new waterway would be located on the European side of the Bosporus, he said, but would not disclose its exact location or the cost of the gargantuan project. It would be completed by 2023, when Turkey will be celebrating the centenary of the founding of the Turkish republic after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
"Turkey more than deserves to enter 2023 with such a crazy and magnificent project," he said to a cheering audience in the city. "Istanbul will become a city with two seas passing through it."
Erdogan, who is hoping to win a third term in office in June, has promised to announce what he called a "crazy project" for Istanbul since campaigning began earlier this month, keeping Turks guessing for weeks.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People's Party, brushed off the project, saying construction contracts would only enrich people close to Erdogan's ruling party.
"They have projects that say 'How can I make my supporters richer?'," the Anatolia news agency quoted him as saying. "This nation does not need crazy people, but people who think."
Town planners speculated the canal would be built west of the town of Silivri in Turkey's Thrace region, since areas closer to Istanbul are heavily populated. The government has already announced plans to build a new airport near Silivri.
Erdogan said hazardous materials from tankers pose a threat to Istanbul, a city of more than 13 million, but the project is likely to draw outrage from environmentalists and spur debate about the ecosytem.
"It is difficult to assess the outcome when one intervenes in a natural system in such an artificial way," said Cemal Saydam, a professor of environmental engineering.
The 19-mile (30-kilometer) long Bosporus strait that bisects Istanbul is, in conjunction with the Dardanelles, the sole passage between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and is heavily congested with tanker traffic to and from Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Ukraine and southern Russia. It has been the scene of ship accidents in the past and environmentalists warn a major disaster is waiting to happen.
"Bosporus' traffic will be reduced to zero," Erdogan said. "Water sports will take place on the Bosporus, transport within the city will be established, (Istanbul) will return to its former days."
Past accidents have closed the Bosporus for days, including a 1994 collision of an oil tanker and a cargo ship that killed 29 sailors.
In December 1999, a Russian-made tanker split in two at the mouth of the strait, spilling 235,000 gallons of fuel and blackening 6 miles of coastline.
Erdogan said ships carry 139 million tons of oil, 4 million tons of liquefied petroleum gas and 3 million tons of chemicals through the Bosporus annually, threatening nearly 2 million people living and working on the banks of the waterway.
Erdogan said feasibility studies would take two years to complete. He said he would keep the location of the project a secret, apparently to avoid possible land speculation in the area. Excavated soil would be used in the construction of the port and the airport as well as burying some defunct mines in the region.
Kadir Topbas, the mayor of Istanbul and a member of Erdogan's party, welcomed the project, saying the new canal would eliminate the risk posed by heavy tanker traffic to Istanbul and the environment.
Associated Press writers Selcan Hacaoglu contributed to this report.