Istanbul’s new airport, expected to be the world’s largest when complete, was officially opened by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on October 29, the 95th anniversary of Turkey’s establishment as a republic.
The auspicious date emphasized Erdogan’s message that the 10 billion euro project north of Istanbul was a symbol of Turkish resurgence, a colossal achievement at a time when Turkey faces so many both domestic and international challenges.
“We did not build [this] airport for our country. It is a great service we are offering to the region and the whole world,” he told the ceremony.
But not everyone shares Erdogan’s pride in the new airport, which will have flights to more than 300 destinations and an eventual capacity of 150-200 million passengers per year when it is complete in 2028. It will also employ some 100,000 people.
Environmentalists warn that construction work has already wreaked devastation on the area along the Black Sea coast covered by woods, lakes, and coastal sand dunes where the airport is located. Local residents are also complaining that they are being forced to sell up and leave their land.
“The northern forests provide oxygen to large parts of Istanbul, as well as fresh water to the whole Marmara region,” warned Başar Toros, an activist with the Northern Forests Defence, (NFD), a conservation movement focused on Turkey’s Black Sea region. In 2015 they issued a report warning that an ecosystem of some 70 species would be destroyed by excavation work for the airport.
“But the government believes that this area has a potential to become a huge revenue source for them,” he continued. “Destroying public spaces and cutting forests down for money cannot be the source of economic growth. Unfortunately, this is exactly what they do.”
Critics have long warned that the megaprojects so beloved by Erdogan over his 15-year rule risk having disastrous environmental effects.
These include the 2016 third bridge between Istanbul’s Asian and European shores and a planned 30- mile shipping canal parallel to the Bosphorus.
The new airport, they argue, is a prime example. Not only has construction been hurried and fraught with danger – according to official figures, at least 27 workers have died so far, although there are claims that the real figure is much higher – but the long-term impact has not been considered.
About 80 percent of the land on which the airport is being built is covered by forests, and the environmentalists claim their destruction will have an irreversible effect on Istanbul’s climate and fresh water supply.
According to the Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIA) published in March 2013, up to 657,000 trees will have been cut down and more than 1.8 million removed and replanted by the time construction is complete.
The new airport, being constructed over an area of 76.5 million square meters some 50 km to the north of İstanbul, has been built to be energy-efficient. It will also replace Ataturk, the city’s previous major hub, which will eventually close to commercial air traffic.
But critics say that this does not go far enough to offset the negative impact, noting that a lack of regulation makes the project even riskier.
Nuray Çolak, a city planner from Istanbul, pointed to the stone quarries routinely created near large building sites to reduce construction costs.
“Construction companies can easily get a license from the Regional Forest Directorate [to build a quarry] in any region they want,” she said. “Nobody knows how many licenses have been issued, or how much of the forest has been destroyed. Stone quarries are dangerous because of the dynamite they are using, and because of the dust containing chemicals.”
On the ground, the impact is already being felt. In the village of Ağaçlı, close to the construction site, public access to the coastline has been closed since July 2014, when the first quarry was built in the area.
Sabahattin Çalışır, 76, said that his ancestors had settled in Ağaçlı in the 19th century and had been involved in agriculture ever since.
He fears that will all change with the construction of the new airport, particularly due to the devastation of the coastline.
“What kind of municipality fills the sea with concrete? Is this normal?” he asked. “Until ten years ago, people from Istanbul used to come here on weekends to swim in the sea. Now, the only thing we get from Istanbul are excavation works and dirt.”
The villagers face a more direct threat, too. Land in the area around the new airport is likely to be expropriated by the ministry of environment and urbanisation. Under Article 46 of the Turkish constitution, the state is entitled to acquire private lands for public benefit if they compensate the owners and users affected.
“They keep telling us, ‘You need to leave this area.’ But we don’t want to leave,” Çalışır said.
The villagers are also unhappy with the prices the government has offered them for their land.
Although prices have dramatically increased since the plans for the new airport were announced, locals say that the government refuses to pay market rates.
The first court-assigned expert valued a square metre of the land at 3,400TL (640 dollars), a huge rise from the previous price of 50-250 Turkish Lira (9-47 US dollars). The Housing Development Administration of Turkey (HDAT) objected, offering 2,400TL (450 dollars) instead.
Like almost all his fellow villagers, Çalışır – who owns 100 acres of land in the area – is engaged in a lawsuit against HDAT.
“Our family has three lawyers. We first went to the Constitutional Court, and then to the European Court of Human Rights [ECHR],” he said.
Nail Bostancı, whose family migrated from Bulgaria to the north of Istanbul in the 1860s, is also incensed by the government’s offer.
“If there were a free market, the price for a square meter of our fields would be 4,000-5,000 TL,” Bostanci said. “They [the government] just want to confiscate the land by kicking us out. They never ask what Ağaçlı villagers want and keep saying, ‘Give us your land and take your money.’”
There have been some attempts to stop the project. In 2016, for instance, a coalition including the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (UCTEA), and the Istanbul branches of the Chambers of Architects, City Planners and Civil Engineers all demanded its cancellation on the grounds that it would harm the Marmara ecosystem.
However, construction has continued as planned. According to Istanbul Electricity, Tramway and Tunnel General Management (IETT), the airport will be connected to Istanbul by a network of 150 buses and 660 taxis, with a new subway due to be built within the next few years.
The EIA contains plans for the next three phases of the airport’s construction, including a further urban complex, with sports facilities, a museum and exhibition hall as well as conference and business centres, places of worship, a hospital, shopping malls and hotels.
“The government has chosen the northern forests as the new area of expansion for Istanbul,” said Çolak, the city planner. “The purpose of this whole project is not to alleviate the air transportation problem in this city, but to make money by exploiting nature.”