From the 1950s to the 1990s, Istanbul’s historic Golden Horn was a prime dumping spot for industrial waste - but all that has changed. This is the story of how Istanbul reversed the damage.
Istanbul’s famed Halic, or the Golden Horn as its old residents call it because of its shape, is a primary waterway between the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea. For thousands of years, it has served as a grand symbol of the city’s beauty and richness, its tranquil waters separating the city’s historic centre from its suburbs.
Halic, which means ‘gulf’ in Arabic, has long served as a natural harbour sheltering the city from invading naval fleets during the Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras up until Ottoman times when lovers and families could be seen in traditional rowboats relaxing away from the hustle of urban life.
But in the 1950s, a few decades after the founding of the Turkish republic, Halic became a victim of the harsh industrialisation of Istanbul as the urban sprawl overran the city’s historic quarters, hitting the Golden Horn badly.
“I came to Istanbul in 1986. The situation [in Halic] was awful both in itself and in its environs. Slaughterhouses, slums and nondescript abandoned buildings were standing in old ruinous neighbourhoods,” says Bekir Kayacan, a professor of economics at Istanbul University.
The terrible smell spreading from the beautiful old waters of Halic made it unbearable to live close to the water.
“Halic had been completely turned into a waste container,” Kayacan, who is also a board member of several environmental NGOs, including the Association for Solidarity with Environment Organisations and the Environment Foundation, told TRT World.
From the 1950s to the late 1980s excrement from densely populated neighbourhoods flowed into Halic along with other industrial waste and practically prevented any sea transportation.
(Images obtained by TRT World show the drastic change to the Bosphorus straits between 1997 and 2012)
From Dalan to Erdogan
During the conservative Motherland Party governance, Bedrettin Dalan, the former mayor of Istanbul from 1984 to 1989, launched the first initiative to fight back against the growing waste crisis in Halic, Kayacan said.
Dalan, who is famous for his blue eyes in Turkey, famously said during his tenure that "the waters of the Golden Horn will be the same colour as my eyes."
Kayacan said: “He began waste cleaning efforts by demolishing slums, deserted buildings and factories. That was a crucial process [for Halic].”
But cleaning efforts stalled during the tenure of Nurettin Sozen, a leftist mayor, who took over the municipality from Dalan in 1989.
Sozen’s stormy tenure was marked by several controversies ranging from the metropolis’ constant water cuts to serious waste management issues which even led to a methane explosion in the city’s Umraniye district on the Asia side of the city in 1993. Sozen also faced several accusations of corruption during his tenure.
In 1994, fed up with Sozen’s incompetence and controversies, Istanbulites made a remarkable decision for the future of the metropolis, whose population was fast approaching the 10 million mark at the time. Contradicting almost every poll, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Welfare Party (RP) politician from Istanbul, was elected unexpectedly.
Erdogan, who would later become the country’s prime minister and president, was determined to resolve critical issues facing the metropolis: water cuts, transportation inadequacies, air pollution and waste management.
During his short tenure, forcibly interrupted in 1997 by the culprits of Turkey’s post-modern coup, many credited Erdogan for addressing the city’s most crucial issues.
Since Erdogan’s forced departure in 1997, Istanbulites elected back-to-back mayors who have been politically affiliated or connected to Erdogan. His successful tenure persuaded many Turks to consecutively vote for the Justice and Development Party (AK Party)—which Erdogan established in the early 2000s—and has governed the country since 2003.
Among other issues, Erdogan particularly focused on cleaning Halic, a legacy he left to his successors who have continued to implement the project.
“After he became the mayor in 1994, he has attached great importance on the cleansing efforts in Halic,” said Salih Gunduz, the system development manager at the Directorate of Marine Services for the municipality.
“He launched (the project) at a time when some academicians were even suggesting that Halic’s water area should be completely closed off and joined with surrounding shores,” Gunduz told TRT World.
The Halic project
Until 1994, there was a lot of discussion about Halic, but little action.
“Nobody offered a practical project with a straight financial plan to address the problem until Recep Tayyip Erdogan became mayor,” said Izzet Ozturk, a professor of environmental engineering at the Istanbul Technical University (ITU), who became the leading academic working on the Halic project. He is also currently a board member of the Istanbul Water and Sewerage Administration.
The rancid stench, which had affected not only the Halic area but surrounding areas close to Bayrampasa, forced people to move to other parts of Istanbul giving the city a bad reputation in the process, Ozturk recalls.
With the support of the municipality in 1995, Ozturk and his associates launched the Halic Rehabilitation Project, one of the subcomponents of the overall Halic project, which analysed the type of mud inside the water and worked on possible ways to extract it.
The project also sought options to carry mud from the Halic basin to other, possibly remote locations. In the end, Ozturk’s team decided to move the waste in the form of liquefied mud through tunnels from Halic to the Cebeci quarries, located in the Alibeykoy district of Istanbul.
From 1997 to 2000, the transfer was successfully implemented, removing nearly five million cubic meters of mud from the Halic basin, according to Ozturk. The project officially ended in 2000.
“As soon as the project ended, all the smell was gone,” Ozturk remembered, saying that he personally experienced the disappearance of the smell as a resident of Eyup, a district, located on the banks of Halic, since 1996.
Since then, mud removal has continued without any interruption according to the municipality’s marine services directorate.
“Every year, we continue to remove around 80,000 to 100,000 cubic metres of mud from Halic,” says Saffet Altindag, project manager at the Directorate of Marine Services for the municipality.
In addition to mud removal, the municipality also wants to use Halic’s waste wisely. The removed mud has been used to build Vialand, one of the biggest shopping centres in the Halic area, owned by the municipality, Altindag said.
In 2009, the Golden Horn Environmental Protection Project, one of the most critical parts of the Halic project, was launched, bringing fresh sea water to the Golden Horn from Sariyer, on the Bosphorus’ Black Sea shore, through the complex network of underground tunnels and terrestrial springs, which are nearly 14 km long.
The fresh sea project, completed in late 2012, aimed to prevent the foul smell and revive marine life in Halic.
“As of October 2012, every day 260,000 cubic metres of water have been pumped into the Golden Horn from the Bosphorus through the newly built tunnels, in order to prevent smell during rainless days,” Altindag told TRT World.
The waste removal efforts, along with landscaping activities, come at a high price, costing the municipality nearly $1 billion over three decades from the late 1980s according to Ozturk. The fresh sea project itself only cost almost $9 million, according to media accounts.
But it comes with a high return.
New Golden Horn
Now the Halic area hosts several museums, universities, cultural and recreational centres, five-star hotels, restaurants and cafes and shopping centres, which would have been unfathomable three decades ago. Both banks of the Halic are home to several parks, and this part of the Golden Horn is now one of the most tranquil spots in Istanbul.
The municipality has also aggressively pursued a restoration campaign, which renovated many historic fountains, houses and places of worship, including a Bulgarian church, whose restoration effort cost millions of dollars according to an official of the municipality’s historical artefacts department.
“[Since Erdogan’s tenure] there has been a tremendous and radical change and transformation (in Halic). The place right now we use as a congress centre was a literal dump,” Kayacan said, referring to the Halic Congress Center, one of the biggest in the world, standing where there was once a slaughterhouse.
Moreover, in terms of transportation and fun, the Golden Horn is back to its old self. Boats and ferries garnished with Ottoman decorations now sail between the eastern side of Halic to the western side, transporting families and friends, commuters and tourists.
“In the 1980s, you could not definitely see anybody fishing in Halic. Maybe you could see several fishermen close to the Galata Bridge. The fishing was impossible. During the summer times, you could even not open your home’s windows because of the awful smell,” Kayacan remembered.
But now the Golden Horn’s waters host several fish species according to the municipality’s Directorate of Maritime Services.
“Our divers’ shootings have shown us that many species such as hermit crab, nudibranch and seahorse have now been living in the deep sea base of Halic. We see sometimes dolphins are visiting Halic,” Gunduz said.
In terms of taking control of its waste “Halic is a true success story”, Kayacan concluded.