Maritime Traffic Risks

Despite the use of the latest technology, the sea traffic in the Bosporus strait, one of the busiest waterways in the world, poses a risk to safety in İstanbul

Bosporus maritime traffic risks İstanbul’s safety despite precautions

The sea traffic in the Bosporus strait, one of the busiest waterways in the world, poses a risk to safety in İstanbul.

Despite the use of the latest technology to monitor ships, the passage of huge tankers as well as the fact that hiring a maritime pilot is optional increases the possibility of accidents in the narrow passageway.

A former deputy and member of Parliament, Ufuk Uras drew attention to the risks that İstanbul faces when he shared his concerns on social media. Highly critical of the current situation concerning the Bosporus, Uras argues that under today’s conditions, the Montreux Convention has no validity. “Just like the United Nations system, the regime of the straits must be updated,” says Uras, as he adds that the people of İstanbul carry all the burden of the risks and threats.

The Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, signed in 1936, gives control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to Turkey while guaranteeing the free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime. Of the total of 29 articles in the convention, 22 are related to military issues; the convention restricts the passage of naval ships not belonging to Black Sea states. The point that causes concern over safety of the Bosporus is Article 2, which makes the presence of a maritime pilot while navigating the channel optional. A maritime pilot is a local expert with detailed knowledge of the waterway that comes aboard to help guide the vessel through the passageway smoothly.

Referring to approximately 400 accidents that have happened in the Bosporus since 1936, Uras says there are 12 turning points on the 31-kilometer-long Bosporus and that at four of them tankers cannot be seen from the other side (there are blind spots), which poses a great risk of an accident. Uras says that 40 percent of ships do not use maritime pilots.

In response to a question about the lack of public awareness on an issue that poses such a large threat to İstanbul, Uras says people do not know the scope of the danger. “If they knew, they would react,” he added.

Uras says that although the current regime is advantageous for Russia and other states that are using the straits, what matters is the well-being of the people of İstanbul. “Turkey could take the initiative to change the status quo, it could create a de facto situation to protect İstanbul,” argues Uras. “No international agreement should jeopardize the security of people,” he adds.

However, experts disagree with him on many points, though they acknowledge a great risk. Tuncay Çehreli, supervisor at the International Association of Marine Aids (IALA) Directorate General of Coastal Safety, says that there is naturally a safety risk on the Bosporus, especially where big tankers are concerned, but the Turkish state has taken all the necessary precautions to minimize the risks. Referring to the Vehicle Trafficking System (VTS) system established in 2004 on the Bosporus, Çehreli says it is the most advanced technology and is working efficiently.

“There is risk due to the geographic nature and narrowness of the Bosporus,” says Çehreli. According to him, even the most state-of-the art tanker equipped with the latest technology could hit a smaller old vessel if the latter has a mechanical problem.

All vessels carrying dangerous materials also pose a threat, but Çehreli says that in the Bosporus, the length of the ship is more important than its tonnage. Accordingly, there are regulations preventing the passage of tankers longer than 250 meters at night.

According to the figures Çehreli provided, almost 50 percent of the ships take a maritime pilot on board with them. Approximately 52,000 ships pass through the Bosporus each year. However, Çehreli believes that except for the article regarding the use of a maritime pilot, the Montreux agreement is actually advantageous for Turkey as well as the other signatories. If it is replaced with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Turkey would lose rights it currently has under the Montreux Convention, he says. Instead, he suggests Turkey try to make the presence of maritime pilots required through bilateral efforts.

The head of the Maritime Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Barış Kalkavan, also admits that there is a high risk of accidents, adding that the Bosporus is not the smoothest waterway in the world, but states that Turkey provides the best trafficking system available for vessels. He rules out the possibility of re-evaluating the Montreux Convention, as it “serves the interests of everyone.” According to him, it would be a disservice to question the convention since it provides “a sensitive balance” to both the Bosporus and Black Sea parties. Cahit İstikbal, vice president of the International Maritime Pilots’ Association (IMPA), says that the passage of tankers through the Bosporus poses a safety risk, just as in any place where there is maritime shipping.

Talking about the VTS that was established to provide greater safety on the Bosporus, he says that all the movements, as well as the speed and direction, of the ships are monitored by radar and that maritime vehicles are warned when necessary. The system is run by the Directorate General of Coastal Security from its headquarters in İstinye.

Rejecting the argument that there are blind spots on the Bosporus, İstikbal says there is no safety breach. However, he admits the danger increases when tankers with a load of more than 150,000 tons pass through the strait. Each day four such vessels sail through the Bosporus, İstikbal says. “The very fact that such a ship passes through the Bosporus poses a risk,” he says because a 150-meter-long tanker needs three kilometers to come to a stop. If a mechanical problem were to occur, it would take a tanker carrying petrol 25 minutes to come to a full stop, which is long enough to cause an accident. However, İstikbal says that as a precaution, there are four stations on the Bosporus to tow tankers in if needed. Yet, he admits that it would take only a minute for a tanker weighing 150,000 tons to hit land.

The fact that the Montreux Convention makes the presence of a maritime pilot on vessels passing through the Bosporus optional remains an important problem in the overall safety of the straits. İstikbal says that although 90 percent of tankers hire maritime pilots, only 45 percent of all vessels do so. In response to a question on why vessels do not hire maritime pilots, İstikbal says it is primarily a question of the cost. For a tanker, the fee is approximately $3,500-5,000 while it is $300-500 for small vessels. İstikbal says that the cost of hiring a maritime pilot is usually equal to about only 1 percent of the total value of the load on the vessel.

In a similar remark, Çehreli says that almost all big tankers hire maritime pilots to avoid losing their prestige in the event of an accident, as well as the risk of damage. Although not required, all ships longer than 200 meters hire pilots, according to him.

Despite the strong recommendation of the International Maritime Organization to hire a maritime pilot when passing through the Bosporus, due to Article 2 of the Monteux Convention, it is not required. İstikbal says that although Montreux seems like the main reason why companies do not hire maritime pilots, he doubts whether Turkey would be able to make the attendance of pilots required even in the absence of such an agreement.

It is evident that maritime pilots reduce the risk of an accident since 93 percent of the accidents in the Bosporus took place on or were caused by vessels without a maritime pilot. In other parts of the world, natural waterways are protected by a requirement for maritime piloting, such as in Australia, says İstikbal, as he adds that the Bosporus is no less risky.

On the other hand, Erhan Başyurt, editor-in-chief of the Bugün daily, who wrote his Master’s thesis on the Montreux Convention, says that although a re-evaluation of the convention is necessary, the current international law on waters favors the ships, and if Turkey is to suggest any change in the laws that regulate the passage of the Bosporus, it should do so when it has enough power to change the status quo. Başyurt argues that, under the current conditions, an attempt by Turkey could have a disadvantageous result. “Timing is important,” says Başyurt.

Stating that there is a need to re-examine the regulation of the straits, Başyurt says that “even if only one ship passes through the Bosporus, there is a security concern because a marine pilot is not required.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs website states that an average of 140 ships a day traveled through the Bosporus in 2009, compared to only 17 in 1936 when the Montreux Convention was signed. The traffic in the Turkish straits is three times more frequent than the Suez Canal.

In the face of such heavy traffic, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government suggested the Kanal İstanbul (Channel İstanbul) project in 2011 to alleviate shipping traffic in the Bosporus. The project will create an artificial waterway between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea to bypass the Bosporus, and is to be completed by 2023. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was also expected to reduce oil shipping through the Bosporus. According to figures from the İstanbul Directorate of Environment and Urbanization, since 2006 the number of tankers in the Bosporus has dropped by 10 percent.

Source: Todays Zaman

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