The Price of Progress – Turkey’s Economic Miracle

Turkey’s economy is booming. Reputable sources (the World Bank, the IMF and the CIA) rank Turkey as the 15th or 16th largest in the world by GDP, with an annual growth rate of 6 to 8%, putting it up there with China and India. The Spanish newspaper ‘El Pais’ ran an article recently on the Turkish ‘Economic Miracle’, citing as its chief symbol, the Istanbul Sapphire Tower, currently, at 261 metres, the tallest building in Europe.

In 1973, the Bosporus was spanned by an impressive suspension bridge. In 1988, a second was opened to keep pace with Istanbul’s growth. Last year, the go-ahead was given for a third bridge; a rail tube/tunnel is due to open in 2013, linking the Asian and European sides of the city – and plans are currently afoot for a road tunnel. There are 38 universities listed in Istanbul alone, and 74 modern shopping malls, with ten new ones scheduled to open in the next two years.

Last month, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced the grandest project yet – a proposed 50-kilometre canal linking the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, allowing much of the tanker and container ship traffic that currently passes through the centre of the city, to bypass the Bosporus Strait. PM Erdoğan has attracted a fair amount of flak locally for his ‘crazy and magnificent’ scheme, but, in fact, it looks like a modest proposal when measured against the Grand Canal of China, completed in 609 CE, and reputed to measure 1794 kilometres in length! Nevertheless, if it comes to fruition, the Istanbul canal will not be much inferior in scale to the Suez or Panama waterways.

This exponential growth is not confined to Istanbul alone. The former imperial capital is, of course, by far the country’s largest urban area, with an estimated population of over 13 million. However, there are at least eight other cities exceeding the one million mark. A month or so ago, I was in Konya for a conference. I had been there twelve years previously when it was a rather sleepy central Anatolian city best known for its Seljuk architecture and as a place of pilgrimage for those visiting the tomb of Mevlana Rumi. On my latest visit, the view from my hotel window was dominated by a 42-storey office tower rising from the opposite side of the street – this in Turkey’s seventh largest city.

Number 8 on the list is Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast, which I also had the pleasure of visiting recently. Antalya, the ancient Greek city of Attalia, is one of the jewels on what is sometimes referred to as the Turkish Riviera. We EFL teachers were treated to three nights at the Vogue Avantgarde, a 5-star establishment near the village of Göynük. A sign at reception announced the price of a single room as $450, with a reduction to $660 if you could find someone to share a double. I doubt if any of the guests, us or the Russian tourists, were actually paying that much, but it was a pretty nice place, with multi-lingual staff, its own beach plus several swimming pools, entertainment on tap, and food that wouldn’t have disappointed the guests at Kate and William’s wedding.

Now I couldn’t begin to guess how many similar palaces of hospitality line Turkey’s 4300 km of Mediterranean and Aegean coastline – and no doubt it must still be possible to find a relatively unspoiled beach. Nevertheless, it’s becoming increasingly difficult, and this entry in a recent edition of ‘Lonely Planet Turkey’ for the resort of Ölüdeniz is representative: ‘Unfortunately, the paradise that many past travellers fondly recall has all but been ruined by the tightly packed belt of hotels behind the beach. [This] used to be one of the highlights of independent travel in Turkey but the development of identical air-conditioned hotels, loud bars and over-priced restaurants has hardly bolstered its appeal.’

Some friends of mine from Istanbul moved down south to Antalya a few years ago to build their dream house in a village somewhere out of town amidst the orange groves, with views of the Taurus mountains. Most of us have dreams, but not many of us get to fulfil them, so I hope Andy and Burcu (not their real names) will forgive my mentioning them here. They have a beautiful place to live, and we denizens of megalopolitan Istanbul can only envy them, and hope that the urban sprawl of Antalya will leave them in peace.

Nuclear power comes with a cost

Some 300 kilometres to the east of Antalya, citizens of another important Turkish city are bracing for the approach of a different aspect of modernity. Mersin is another urban centre approaching the magic 1 million population, Turkey’s largest port, and proud possessor of a 52-story tower, the nation’s tallest when it was built in 1987. A hundred kilometres down the road from Mersin is the town of Akkuyu, where Turkey’s first nuclear power plant for the generation of electricity will be built by the Russian state nuclear company Rosatom. Some folks may find it a little strange that Turkey, a notoriously seismically unstable land, is going ahead with a nuclear power station at a time when Japan is struggling to contain the fallout from its crippled plant at Fukushima, damaged by the tsunami in the aftermath of the March earthquake. Nevertheless, Akkuyu is only one of two sites which the Turkish government has earmarked for nuclear-powered electricity generation – the second being at Sinop on the Black Sea coast.

Some may also question Turkey’s wisdom in entrusting the building of these facilities to a Russian company. 1986 is fading from living memory, and becoming ancient history, but Turks have good cause to remember the Soviet-era nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in nearby Ukraine. Perhaps the effects of the radiation leakage are less immediate these days. However, the Russian government is currently engaged in building a huge concrete shield to cover the still threatening Chernobyl plant. An expert was asked how long the site would remain a danger. His answer? Around 20,000 years!

Well, Turkey needs energy, there’s no questioning that. The country’s GDP may exceed that of Saudi Arabia, but it does not possess the oil riches that bless (or curse) its neighbouring guardian of the holy cities of Islam. Turkey is rich in water, a resource arguably more beneficial in the long-term than oil. The GAP project, harnessing the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers includes the world’s fourth largest dam. However, the rising waters will soon cover the ancient city of Zeugma, location of some of the most magnificent mosaics of the ancient world. Highlighting the paradoxical truth that a blessing can also be a curse, Turkey’s treasury of historical riches adds hugely to the cost of every development project. The Istanbul Metro system is several years behind schedule, and no doubt considerably over budget because excavations constantly turn up remains of Greek and Roman temples, harbours, churches and cemeteries, which demand the attentions of armies of archeologists before construction can continue. A bridge which will carry the Metro trains over the Golden Horn has had to be redesigned several times to comply with UNESCO demands that it must not blight the domed and minaretted skyline of ancient Istanbul with incongruous modernity.

So that brings us back to nuclear power stations. Nobody wants to live next door to one, but what can you do? George Bush the Elder Is notorious for his refusal to accept the recommendations of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 with the immortal line: ‘The American way of life is non-negotiable.’ Back then, perhaps, the danger we face as a planet was not so clear, at least not to the GOP and its supporters. Now that China, with its 1.3 billion population, has overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy, we are starting to get it. What happens when those rising Chinese middle classes are able to afford the ‘American way of life’ to which they probably aspire? And then there’s India, picked to succeed China as the most populous nation by 2025. I don’t know their figures, but I can extrapolate from what I know about Turkey, with its comparatively miniscule population of 75 million. Anyone who lives in Istanbul will tell you about the nightmare of traffic in the city  – yet the ratio of motor vehicles per capita in Turkey is less than 25%. What will happen when that figure approaches the Western norm of 70 to 80%? Then do the maths for India and China. Then give some thought to installing a solar water heater and a wind-powered generator on your rooftop.

2 thoughts on “The Price of Progress – Turkey’s Economic Miracle

  1. Always enlightening, Alan. We would LOVE to put a windmill on our hill. Stay tuned! I am proud to say that my Boston kids (Jamie's sister Meghan and her husband Greg) do not own a car now. They rely on bikes, public transportation, and when they need a car, they rent one from the Zipcar organization, whose aim is to reduce the number of cars in urban environments by making a pool of cars easily available to rent. They are parked in a decentralized way throughout the city, and you can reserve them as you need them. You only pay a small amount to belong each year, and then have the service available to you. It's a great model…

    Thanks, always, for giving us these insights.

  2. Sounds like Bostonians are on the right track, Margie. I hope the trend spreads to Istanbul, Mumbai, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and other megalopolises in the developing world – but I'm not hopeful.

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