Dangerous Waters

FIRST POST, November 24, 2008

In the winter fog, the minarets of Istanbul’s Ottoman skyline fade slightly into the sky. The streets turn slick and oily, and the Bosphorus smells powerfully of charcoal, fish, lignite, and oil from the tankers. These massive ships are constantly pulling under the city’s massive concrete bridges, the massiveness of everything suggesting the waterway’s critical geostrategic significance.

Istanbul was Constantinople–and Byzantium, too; now it’s a modern mega-city exploding with life and commerce. For those who live here, the ultimate nightmare scenario is an accident involving a ship carrying liquid petroleum gas. Under the right conditions, it could explode like an atomic bomb, destroying the 3,000-year-old city and every living thing within a 50-kilometer radius.

The war in Georgia has raised the risk of an apocalyptic accident in these waters. But thanks to an obscure 1936 treaty, the Turkish government cannot insist upon blindingly obvious rules to reduce the risk. Imposed by the allies upon the newly independent Turkish state after the Great War, the Montreux Convention guarantees merchant vessels complete freedom to transport any goods at any time through the Bosphorus. The Convention was designed to balance Russian and Western spheres of influence. In practice, it has created a zone of maritime lawlessness.

This is one of the most difficult waterways in the world to navigate: its convoluted morphological structure requires ships to change course at least twelve times. Four of these turns are blind corners. Approaching vessels can’t be seen until it’s too late. The Bosphorus carries more than four times the load of either the Panama or Suez canals. Notorious for strong currents, whirlpools, whipping winds, and sudden dense fogs, it’s booby-trapped with high-tension electric lines, suspension bridges, and a myriad of small craft which ply its length and breadth. Every day, a million and a half people commute by ferry from one side of Istanbul to the other, and every day, more than 2,500 vessels a day pass through the Straights, including an average of 28 tankers, most of them carrying enough explosive material to turn these waters into an inferno. No one should be trying to navigate this passage without a skilled, experienced pilot—more than 85 percent of accidents on the Straits involve unpiloted vessels—but nearly half of the ships from the post-Soviet states simply refuse to use one. Because of the Montreux Convention, the Turks can’t force them to.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the discovery of huge oilfields in and around the Caspian Sea has turned the Bosphorus into a liquid pipeline. In the past five years, cargo traffic through the Black Sea has risen by nearly 500 percent; the flow of oil from the port of Novorossysk has more than doubled. Monstrous vessels full of oil, dangerous chemicals, nuclear waste and liquid gas—often skippered by drunken incompetents—have been pouring down from the Caucuses and steaming right through the center of Istanbul. Many of these tankers are rustbuckets that shouldn’t be at sea, let alone passing right through the middle of a city of 15 million people. Because of the Montreux Convention, Turkey can’t ban them.

Ankara, frantic about the hazard posed by increasing energy traffic in the straits, has in recent years been pressing for the development of alternative energy routes, focusing on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. But the conflict between Georgia and Russia displayed the limitations of this strategy when Russian bombers lit up the area around the pipeline, immediately interrupting supplies. It’s still not back to full capacity. Gas flows through the Baku-Supsa pipeline were disrupted, too. The result: More pressure on shipping lanes through the Turkish Straights.

The danger is not theoretical. Hundreds of accidents have already happened. Thousands of tonnes of pollutants have gushed, spewed, dribbled and exploded into the Bosphorus. In 1979, a fully-laden Romanian oil tanker caught fire after colliding with a Greek ship. The explosion burned the crews to death and rocked Istanbul like an earthquake, shattering windows, turning the sky blood-red, and spilling 94,000 tonnes of burning oil into the Sea of Marmara. (The Exxon Valdez only leaked 25,000 tonnes.) Five years later, a Greek Cypriot tanker collided with another vessel in the Straits, killing 30 and spilling 20,000 tonnes of oil. The Bosphorus was aflame for five days. In 1999, a 25-year old Russian tanker ran aground and split near the southwest shores of Istanbul, spilling 800 tonnes of fuel. In 2005, a ship carrying liquid petroleum gas sank; its seven tanks floated free for two days, causing city-wide panic, before they were retrieved. In 2006, only a last-minute intervention prevented an unpiloted kerosene-laden tanker from crashing into the Dolmabahçe Palace. This is not a safety record to set the mind at ease, particularly since mathematical models developed to study these accidents indicate that collisions increase quadratically with traffic intensity.

A disaster in the Bosphorus wouldn’t just cripple Istanbul: It would turn off the lights in Europe. Even a moderate oil spill could close the Straights for months of cleanup, cutting off a substantial proportion of Europe’s energy supplies and causing a worldwide economic crisis. The environmental costs would be incalculable. Most people have never heard of the Montreux Convention–but a moment’s miscalculation in these foggy waters might very well make it infamous.

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