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How safe is the Bosphorous?

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 Istanbul was around half a million, 17 vessels a day transited and their average weight was around 13 tons. Now, there are 140 vessels a day of up to 200,000 tons."

The problem of having no enforceable rules is further added to by some quirks of the Bosphorus itself. The channel contains some 12 turns, four of them blind, and is a jumble of different currents. The Black Sea, at the northern end, is higher than the Aegean at the southern end.

This creates a gravitational current on the surface flowing north to south. However, with four major fresh water rivers flowing into the Black Sea, a strong difference in levels of salinity means a strong undercurrent going in the opposite direction. Between the two, a number of cross-currents and vortexes are created, some as strong as seven knots. "A ship needs to maintain at least a five-knot speed with respect to the water in order to steer," says Ince. Take a slow-moving old tanker suddenly hitting one of these cross currents and the natural reaction of the captain is to slow down. The result is a loss of steerage and often the ship going aground.

The narrowness of the channel - in some places it closes to only 700 metres also poses problems. The Bosphorus is divided into an up lane and a down lane, and with International Maritime Organisation regulations over minimum distances for ships to turn, the passage of a large tanker necessitates the closure of one or other of these lanes while the ship passes. This causes delays and bottlenecks, which the Turks argue are going to get worse if tanker traffic increases. As ships can pass at any time they wish, it is not possible to enforce a coherent queuing system, leading sometimes to the strange spectacle of approaching ships chasing each other in order to try and get to the mouth of the Straits first.

Add into this the normal vagaries of human error, and the Turkish authorities claim they have a strong case for a revision of procedures. Designed by Professor Ince, a new high-tech Vessel Traffic System (VTS) was put out to tender at the end of 1998. This envisages an interlocking system of radar towers and undersea sensors to provide ships with all the information they need. However, Ince stresses that "although you have to have VTS, you also have to have rules."

The issue is also highly political. Turkey, with the support of the US, has been advocating that instead of transporting Central Asian oil via the Straits, a pipeline should be constructed from Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. There are also proposals to ship the oil to Bulgarian or Romanian ports and then via pipelines to the Adriatic or the Aegean, bypassing the Straits altogether. February saw the Turkish, Georgian and Azeri governments meet with the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC), the BP Amoco-led conglomerate of multinational oil companies charged with developing the Azeri fields, to make a final decision on this.

Nonetheless, Ince insists that whatever the decision on the pipeline, the Bosphorus safety issue will not go away. "People ask me how much traffic can pass through the Straits," he says, "which is a bit like asking how long is a piece of string." His conviction, though, is that "there are already too many ships". Under a set of regulations proposed by the Turkish government in 1994, he calculates that around 3,000 ships a month should be the maximum.

The Montreux Convention grants "free passage", but Ince would like to modify that. "It's not free passage that's needed, but safe free passage," he says. A sentiment that many in Istanbul would agree with.
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Comment:The safety of the Bosphorous Strait is slowly being undermined by the increasing traffic due to the growing competition for the shipment of Central Asian oil to Western markets.
Author:Gorvett, Jon
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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