Cengiz Aktar
Oct 30 2018

The problem is the raison d’être of the airport

Had it not been for the workers’ protests against the dangerous working conditions and the government's harsh response to their demands, the Turkish public would not be hearing about the construction of the Istanbul Airport at all.

You can read about the details of the bidding process, technical facts, the tremendous financial burden it will bring to the Turkish taxpayers, and all the other trickery on BBC's three-part investigative story that was published on its Turkish-language website.  

But I would like to bring up a different point. This giant, extravagant and wasteful project has not been publicly discussed during any stage of its construction. Just like hundreds of other infrastructure and construction projects in Turkey.

Many in Turkish society are willing to buy into the government's development policy - that the rest of the world is supposedly jealous of - based on non-stop infrastructure construction, extraction of fossil fuels and ever-increasing mass consumption. Leftists, rightists, liberals, socialists, the pious, atheists, workers and employers, the overwhelming majority of Turkish society support the government's reckless growth-oriented development policies.

Very few are worried about the damage these expensive, unsustainable, unchecked, non-transparent policies are leaving behind. Neither do the giant European companies, which are required to obey labour laws and environmental rules in Europe, care. These companies are lining up to grab the megaproject tenders from the Turkish government; ThyssenKrupp got their biggest passenger boarding bridges contract to date with 143 units for Istanbul Airport, DHL signed an agreement to use the new airport as a logistics hub, Siemens is equipping the new airport's cargo terminal. To name just a few.

The public only notices the destructive effects of these growth-at-any-cost policies on human life when they cause mass deaths like when 301 miners were killed in Soma in 2014, the worst mining disaster in Turkey.

Our short attention spans, our broken law enforcement and judicial systems, and the general hustle and bustle of everyday life make us forget everything happened that day before nightfall. I am pretty sure the same thing will happen again. We will not be able to find the contractors who are responsible for killing workers during the construction of the new airport.

Except for a handful of environmentalists, no one cares about the destruction of the natural life during construction. The project is a profit and rent source for the political right, and it represents production relations for the political left. They both want growth and development at any cost. The only difference between them is that the left is sensitive to workers' rights; but since more than a majority of the workers are AKP supporters (or at least they pretend to be to get jobs at these massive government projects), this is more for the benefit of the union and political spokespersons of these workers.

When I was a student, I spent some time with French Communists. During one meeting about supporting workers at a well-known weapons production facility, I told the comrades that we were ignoring the fact that as legitimate as the union strike was, at the end of the day the workers were producing a product to destroy people. I remember them mumbling something about production relations being sacred. That was the last meeting I attended. Another believer of sacred production relations, French President Emmanuel Macron, recently said that France had no intention of stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia to continue to kill Yemenis. I am pretty sure the workers of those arms factories are as “sensitive” to the raison d’être of their factory.   

More recently, I saw the disdain in the eyes of a worker who was handed a brochure by environmentalists about another miscalculated project, a tunnel construction in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Having food on the table beats environmental concerns every time. Despite all its anti-imperialist rhetoric, Turkish society is busy imitating the model endorsed and enforced by the West and, moreover, manages to be one of the worst imitations.

After wrecking their nature and social relationships, Western countries wised up a bit and started protecting them, but the developing new-comers always refuse to pay this “high” price in the hope of catching up to their Western counterparts sooner rather than later. However, they do not know that the real cost of this out of control desire for unsustainable growth is their children's future. Every actor in the production relationship is unaware of this fact. The airport workers, for example, who themselves were the victims of those terrible working conditions willingly took part in the destruction of the forests north of Istanbul sacrificed to this horrific airport.

Let me reiterate a few more points to remind how wrong and dangerous the airport project is.

First of all, the world's most gigantic airport is a massacre of Istanbul's northern forests; 7,800 of the 9,200 hectares allocated to the airport were home to an ecosystem of animals and birds supported by beautiful spruce, oak, beech, juniper, redbud, willow and poplar forests. Now that land is covered with concrete. Neighbouring areas were affected as well. The Istanbul Birdwatching Society kept reminding politicians the area is on a migration route of hundreds of thousands of birds, and many other birds winter around the nearby Terkos Lake and other ponds in the vicinity. They also pointed out that in addition to the destruction of wetlands, the possibility of birds flying into the aircraft engines was high. No one cared. The project did not go through an environmental impact assessment so no one knows what the impacts will be. This is the environmental crime side of it.

The Limak-Kolin-Cengiz-Mapa-Kalyon Joint Venture Group that won the tender anticipates the airport construction will be completed in three stages. For the first phase, to be completed in 2019, the airport will have a capacity of 90 million passengers per year. With the addition of more runways in the second phase, the capacity of the airport will reach 120 million passengers per year. In its third phase, the company anticipates extending the airports capacity to 150 million passengers per year. Now the government has raised the final figure to 200 million passengers a year. And why not? However, anyone who knows basic arithmetic can see that this project is insolvent and will incur severe losses for decades to come. And the Turkish people will end up paying the bill because the airport is built under the Build-Operate-Transfer scheme that guarantees a certain number of passengers a year. This is the financial fiasco side of it.

The busiest airport in the world, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, hosts 95 million passengers annually and covers an area of 1,900 hectares. Even if the Istanbul Airport reaches its goal of 150 million passengers a year, rationally 3,500 hectares would be more than enough. There is no need for 5,700 hectares of the 9,200 hectares appropriated for this project. Today, Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport operates on an area of 1,178 hectares and has 45 million passengers a year. Another large airport, London Heathrow, has only two runways and many experts question why Istanbul Airport needs six runways. This is the megalomaniac side of it.