San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Nicaraguan Canal

A canal across Nicaragua: Is this for real?

MANAGUA, Nicaragua – It would be an engineering feat of gargantuan proportions — a $40 billion Chinese-built canal across Nicaragua to boost the flow of ships between the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Proponents point to jobs galore, a huge rise in GDP and other juicy benefits in a very poor country. But as feasibility studies and other preparations gather pace, Nicaraguans are divided between optimists and those who dismiss the plan as a pipe dream.

And environmentalists say it is a recipe for disaster.

The price tag alone is nearly four times Nicaragua’s economic output.

President Daniel Ortega and Wang Jing, chairman of HKND, the Chinese company hired last year to build and operate the waterway for a century, have said work will get under way towards the end of 2014.

That would be just around the time the Panama Canal — where expansion work has stalled in recent weeks in a dispute over cost overrruns — turns 100 years old.

For now, much of it is hush-hush. Feasibility studies are being carried out. Local and international experts are flying over Nicaragua to study possible routes for a canal, and on the ground they are measuring topography and doing biodiversity tests.

Proponents say that as an engineering task it would dwarf the Panama Canal and work more to complement it than as a rival route to move goods across the world.

No joke 

“We do not want to become an international laughingstock and we do not want to become an example of failed Chinese investment,” said Wang, who is firmly committed to a project that is raising eyebrows and hopes in equal measure.

Indeed, the official numbers estimate GDP growth of up to nearly 11 percent per year and the creation of almost one million jobs during the construction and initial years of operation.

That has folks drooling in a nation of six million people with a 45 percent poverty rate and a jobless and underemployment rate of 53 percent.

Earlier this month, the National Council of Universities said it was opening up study programs in 50 higher education facilities to prepare skilled labor for the mega-endeavor.

Kamilo Lara, who represents civil society groups on the commission preparing the canal, said the benefits are not just for Nicaraguans but that it also would speed up global trade.

But skepticism about the project also goes beyond borders.

Ralph Leszczynski, the London-based head of research at the maritime agency Banchero Costa, said flat out “there is no justification whatsoever for a new canal through Nicaragua.”

“We already have a canal through Panama that works pretty well” and is being expanded to handle larger freighters,” he said.

Leszczynski said a relatively small part of world trade needs to pass through the Panama Canal, so another one through Nicaragua would be a pointless duplication.

The Managua government says the new canal would require construction of deep water ports, an airport, an oil pipeline, a railroad, and that building it would take between six and 10 years.

Six possible routes are being considered. The one considered most likely to get the nod by specialists would stretch over a distance of 286 kilometers (177 miles) between the Pacific and the Caribbean, passing through Lake Nicaragua, which covers 8,600 square kilometers (3,320 square miles) and is the country’s main source of drinking water.

By comparison the length of the Panama Canal is about 77 kilometers (48 miles).

Environmentalists see a very steep downside risk.

“Even a small fuel leak or an earthquake could generate an ecological disaster that would end the lake’s drinking water potential forever,” said biologist Salvador Montenegro, head of water resources research at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua.

What is more, “everything is being done quickly and in silence. There is a shroud” surrounding the project, said Ana Quirós, director of the Autonomous Women’s Movement, one of the country’s most active social organizations.

She also expressed doubt about Wang.

“He lacks credentials to make you think he is an experienced businessman and powerful builder,” she said.

Quirós complained, for instance, that Wang won a concession to start up a telephone company in Nicaragua, but she said she is unaware of any progress having been made on that front.

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If people think this is a joke they are sadly mistaken – Lookout Costa Rica, Nicaragua is cranking! They originally offered a friend of mine $7,000,000.00 dollars for his property that was along the original planned route and only backed out after Costa Rica fought with them over that disputed area. Now they have simply moved the project a bit north(sadly for my friend a far distance from his property.) They are also in the process of building a super marina for cruise ships and yachts. Although I am highly concerned that they are not caring much about any environmental impacts, their country is predicted to be the powerhouse of central America within the next 20-50 years. Costa Rica fights and criticizes them all while sinking just like an old wooden ship – don’t think so-? Read the latest statistics showing how companies already down here want to pull out, and companies once thinking of opening doors here are seeking alternative places for business. The bureaucracy and general unfriendliness to the business world is leaving Costa Rica on an economic precipice. I trully believe that had Costa Rica taken a different stance with them that they could have gotten a nice piece of the action over the canal project. I love Costa Rica but they can not seem to do very good regarding long term thinking – I guess it can always live off its estimated 25% gdp of drug laundering monies…..!

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Danny Hunt

The potential for pushing a canal through Nicaragua has been on the books for a very long time. It is most certainly possible and has been a noted possibility for a many decades. I suppose that Costa Rica has been twisted by USA interference.

The USA may have wanted to built this canal but they fought Daneil Ortega for years, illegally, with the Reagan created, armed, trained and protected Contras. Reagan was found guilty of breaking International Law when he illegally mined a Nigaraguan habour.

Reagan and the USA was intent on protecting the Somoza family dictatorship and the lost to the Sandinistas. Good. Bloody dictator supporting USA and the bloody Reagan hatefulness.

Way to Ortega!

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