How safe is the Bosphorous?

Author:Gorvett, Jon

Too many vessels are using the Bosphorus, but instead of a reduction in traffic through the busy waterway an increase is anticipated as competition for shipment of Central Asian oil to the West hots up

"I've been dealing with maritime accidents for a long, long time," said Hucum Tulgar, the general director of Turkey's Coastal Security and Ship Rescue Management authority. "In 20 years I have not known two accidents to occur on the same day, but last week there were three separate incidents."

He was talking at the end of a seven-day period which saw one Turkish-registered tanker explode in the Marmara Sea, just off Istanbul, and three other vessels run aground in the Bosphorus - the narrow 17-mile-long channel that separates Europe from Asia and runs right through the heart of Istanbul, a city of over 10 million people.

Last year this channel saw some 26 accidents, a high tally for a major international waterway and one which now has an added significance as competition over transit corridors for the shipment of Central Asian oil to Western markets hots up. With the first "early" oil arriving at the Georgian Black Sea port of Supsa last December from Baku on the Caspian, the possibility that much of this new oil and gas will end up being shipped by tanker through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles has had the Turkish government and Turkish environmentalists - highly concerned.

The nightmare scenario of a major accident in the Bosphorus involving tankers has been given wide publicity here. One big disaster, and the blast could have dire consequences for the people living along the Bosphorus' crowded shores.

Part of the problem, Turkey insists, is the nature of the international agreements governing the use of the waterway, which together with the Marmara Sea and the Dardanelles are known as the Turkish Straits. Under the 1936 Montreux Convention which governs their use, merchant vessels in peace time "shall enjoy complete freedom of transit and navigation in the Straits under any flag and with any kind of cargo". The Turkish government has no powers to regulate traffic or exact tolls. In addition "pilotage and towage remain optional". Some 4,000-5,000 vessels pass through the Straits every month, yet of these only around a quarter submit any kind of sail plan to the authorities.

"When the Convention was drawn up," says Professor Nejat Ince, the director of the project office for the Turkish Straits Association (TURBO), "the population of...

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