San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Nicaraguan Canal

Will the Nicaragua Canal ruin the ‘Galapagos of Central America’?

MANAGUA, Nicaragua – According to documents from the Chinese company HKND Group, 106.8 kilometers of the planned interoceanic Grand Canal of Nicaragua will go through Lake Cocibolca, also known as Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater body in Central America.

The World Bank calls this lake the “Galapagos of Central America” because of its great biological diversity. The canal – if it is ever made – will enter the lake from the west – south of San Jorge – then cross the lake four kilometers to the south of the volcanic island of Ometepe. It then will hit the eastern shore eight kilometers south of San Miguelito.

The shipping channel in the lake must be 29 meters deep and 280 meters wide so that the largest container ships, bulk carriers and oil tankers in the world can use it. However, Lake Cocibolca is shallow. There are some deep areas, but on average, the lake is no deeper than nine meters. For that reason, HKND plans to dredge 715 million cubic meters of material from the bottom of the lake, possibly the biggest dredging job ever. In comparison, all dredging and excavating in the 100-year history of the Panama Canal has removed a total of 550 million cubic meters of material.

And that’s not all.

“Lake Cocibolca has very strong currents that will make recurrent dredging necessary to keep the shipping channel open,” says Pedro Álvarez Alvarado, the Nicaraguan chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University in Houston, Texas. “All that dredging will bring sediments from the bottom back into the water. These sediments can be contaminated with pesticides and mercury. They also contain organic matter that will stimulate eutrophication in the water.”

Eutrophication happens when excessive amounts of nutrients stimulate the growth of plant life, mostly algae, and through lack of oxygen and light, kill fish and animals.

Is it possible to minimize the negative effects of dredging?

“Yes,” says Wim Klomp, an engineer from the Dutch company HaskoningDHV who led a pre-feasibility study for the canal at the request of HKND. “With modern dredging equipment you can minimize turbidity. However, the use of these techniques slows down the whole dredging process considerably. Also, if there’s pollution in the sediment, you have to determine exactly what it is and where it is before you start dredging.”

Klomp adds: “Chinese dredging companies don’t have a good reputation for minimizing turbidity, and are for that reason banned from working in Australia.”

An excavator and a bulldozer work on Jan. 15 in the harbor of San Jorge, Lake Cocibolca, Nicaragua, where the ferries to Ometepe leave. This harbor needs to be enlarged so that equipment for the construction of the Nicaragua Canal can be transported from here. In the background, Ometepe’s two volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas.

Photo by Teake Zuidema

How clean is the lake anyway?

In 2013, the World Bank published a report stating that Lake Cocibolca contains very high levels of sediment – every year the lake absorbs from 10 to 25 million tons. This number is high because much of the lake’s watershed has lost its forest coverage to agricultural activities and cattle farming. That loss of vegetation stimulates erosion in the watershed. And the sediment from agricultural areas contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that cause unhealthy algae growth.

Among other sources of contamination is the discharge of untreated municipal and industrial wastewater and the waste from commercial farming of tilapia, a non-native fish species.

The World Bank made another important observation: Although only 20 percent of Lake Cocibolca’s watershed is in Costa Rica, this area is responsible for 75 to 84 percent of all sediments that enter the lake in a given year. If Nicaragua wants to have lower sediment loads and prevent the future channel from filling in, it better work with Costa Rica. The most efficient way to reduce the influx of sediments would be erosion control and reforestation on the mountainsides of the northwestern Costa Rican province of Guanacaste.

Related: Costa Rican officials: We still have little information about Nicaragua’s Grand Canal plans

But don’t blame Costa Rica for everything. The huge majority of nitrogen and phosphorous in the water comes from Nicaragua, not from the south.

“NO AL CANAL” is written on a wall on the main street of Moyogalpa, Ometepe, Nicaragua. The majority of the inhabitants of the island vigorously oppose plans for a massive interoceanic canal that will cut through Lake Nicaragua, also known as Lake Cocibolca, just south of their island.

Photo by Teake Zuidema

HKND’s engineers are aware of this stream of sediment from Costa Rica into Lake Cocibolca. HKND’s map of the canal project shows an underwater dam along the full length on the southern (Costa Rican) side of the shipping channel. This dam, no higher than three meters above the bottom, will be made from the heaviest sand and rocks that will be dredged up from the bottom. This material has to go somewhere, and it will help reduce the flow of sediments from Costa Rica into the freshly dug shipping channel. It also will minimize the amount of maintenance dredging required to keep it open.

‘For all the gold in the world’

“We will not risk Lake Cocibolca for all the gold in the world,” Daniel Ortega said in 2007, shortly after he became president of Nicaragua. Only a few years later, El Comandante concluded that the lake already was so seriously polluted that the canal hardly could make it worse.

Is he right?

The World Bank is somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, its report mentions considerable threats to the lake’s health by sediments laden with nitrogen and phosphorous. On the other hand, it states that more research is needed to determine whether eutrophication already is occurring in some places.

Maura Madriz Paladino, an ecologist at the Alexander von Humboldt Center in Managua, vigorously fights the idea that the lake is in very bad shape.

“It is clear that there is some pollution, mostly very local, and that the Nicaraguan government is not investing enough to stop polluted sediments from entering the water,” Madriz Paladino says. “But, if you look at the large volume of water, then the pollution is really minimal. That’s the reason two cities – San Juan del Sur and Jinotega – can take their drinking water from the lake.”

Madriz Paladino sees the canal as a huge threat to the health of the lake and the environment in Nicaragua. “This is the largest body of freshwater in Central America. In the future more people will need it for drinking water and Nicaragua can use it for irrigation.”

What bothers her most is the lack of transparency in the project: “It is hard to say what the effects of the canal will be, if HKND and the government don’t tell us exactly what their plans are. It is very disturbing that the company hasn’t published an environmental impact study while they’ve already began preliminary projects.”

Four girls and a young boy hold up a net and dump it in the muddy water along the shores of Lake Nicaragua as they fish for sardinas on Jan. 17, 2015.

Photo by Teake Zuidema

Blasting and digging

HKND plans to build a factory in Nicaragua to produce the explosives needed for the blasting and digging of the canal through dry land. Kwok Wai Pang, deputy director of construction for HKND, said in December 2014 at a presentation in Managua that the company doesn’t plan to use explosives in Lake Cocibolca. The company will use other, unspecified, methods. Madriz Paladino and others doubt whether it is possible to remove heavy rock, such as basalt, from the bottom without explosives. The use of explosives would do more damage than dredging possibly could.

The heavier material from the bottom, rocks and sand, will be used to build the underwater dam along the channel. What about the rest of the dredged material, the lighter clays and silts?

“In our study we recommended to use these to create islands in the lake with tourism facilities,” says Wim Klomp. On the map that HKND published are two Dredge Disposal Areas visible in Lake Cocibolca. It is not clear if these artificial islands will have a purpose once the water has evaporated and percolated through the dike that surrounds it.

Madriz Paladino is very concerned about changes in the water level that would affect the existing infrastructure along the shores of the lake. There was speculation HKND could create a higher water level in the lake, which would mean less dredging, by building a water control structure in the San Juan River, the only outlet of Lake Cocibolca to the sea. This would, undoubtedly, have created a fresh conflict with Costa Rica. However, in HKND’s plan there is no sign of such a control structure. It remains possible that changes in the hydrology of the lake will affect the water flow through the San Juan River.

The plan that HKND published in January of this year states that the company intends to use no water from Lake Cocibolca. While actual water from Lake Cocibolca will be used for the locks on both sides of the canal, this will, according to the plan, be compensated by the water collected in Lake Atlanta, a new artificial lake in front of the Camilo lock at the eastern side of the canal. The water in Lake Atlanta will mainly come from the Punta Gorda watershed, not from Lake Cocibolca.

Another concern is salinization, which happens when seawater enters the lake as huge ships move through the biggest lock chambers in the world, from ocean level to the lake at 32 meters above sea level.

“Yes, salinization can be a problem,” says Wim Klomp, “but there are remedies, too. Salt water is heavier and, therefore, it sits under the freshwater in the lock chamber, and it can potentially be pumped away and replaced by freshwater.”

Deltares, a Dutch company with a lot of experience in this area, is designing a system for salinity management in the locks.

Last, but not least, there is a chicken-and-egg dilemma: How do those large, modern dredging vessels get into Lake Cocibolca to dig a canal when there’s not yet a canal for them to sail through into the lake?

Of course, the answer is: They don’t. Only smaller dredging vessels will be able to sail up the San Juan River and into Lake Cocibolca. Other dredging equipment will, if possible, have to be transported overland to the lake. (There’s already a project going on to enlarge the harbor of San Jorge for this purpose.) Given the amount of dredging work that needs to be done, this all but guarantees the canal will not be completed in the five years HKDN has suggested.

Teake Zuidema is a Dutch journalist and photographer living in U.S. city of Pittsburgh. He specializes in science and environmental stories. See more of his work at

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I agree with you whole heartedly on the Dutch Consulting team. They are the world leaders in the technical aspects for sure. I also have to think that the HKND Group has formulated and accounted for every detail of this operation. There would be an astronomical amount of investment on the line and will not want any unforeseen problems to contend with.

The biggest issue here is I believe, with such an important project that affects so many people is communication.

The investors of this project are not stupid people by any stretch of the means and should they succeed, stand to gain billions in revenue.
For the Nicaraguan President, a legacy of historic proportions, not to mention whatever royalties or monetary funds which I’m sure is negotiated in the deal.

For the people, there should be hundreds if not thousands of jobs created. New homes will need to built for lands that get expropriated…or I sure hope so!

And that brings us back to transparency. The one area which could resolve some of the negativity is some old fashioned public relations.

They probably have all the answers to any questions concerning the lake…why not hold a proper press conference or offer up a press release to reassure people?

Same for the land and homes they will need…rather than basically trespassing on private property and intimidation, how about a meeting with the folks that’s been well broadcast and letting these people know, how important it is to the country, and they would be well compensated. Not garbage amounts for their homes, but good value…enough to find a new home and while they’re at, how about also offer them 500 – 1000 shares each of the corporation? Their approach thus far has not exactly been cordial.

People who are unsure or kept in the dark of their future become anxious, understandably so.

Last but not least, a good neighbour policy wouldn’t hurt either. Again, I have to believe they’ve done their homework and did an environmental study of all the areas which will be affected. Why not proudly show off, how they can achieve this historic canal without damaging the lake or countryside?

I am not privy to the groups you mention, but I can sure see why people might be upset. Solution= Public Relations, get off your ass!

Oh, the one thing about the keystone pipeline is, the oil wouldn’t be traveling overland, it would be submerged in the ground. Hell of a lot safer than being shipped via, rail or tanker trucks. That’s another project that would benefit a lot of people for both countries…but that’s another kettle of fish.

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Otton Bexaron

This is the best and most balanced article that has been published – anywhere (!) – about this issue.

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Otton Bexaron

With Dutch companies as experts, it shows that the developers rely on serious consultants. The Dutch are the most experienced, this centuries, in the issue of water regulation and canal construction. The Rice University (Houston) based Pedro Alvarez Alvarado is a reputable expert in the field of water quality, but has been since years opposed to any canal in Nicaragua. Up until ten years ago he was an honorary consul of Nicaragua. Rice University is dominated by the Baker oil banking dynasty which has served Reagan and both Bush administrations, especially in the Near East. Houston, one of the world’s most polluted cities will be the terminal and refining location for the daily 800,000 barrels of tar-oil sludge which will be pumped from Canada across 1,700 miles of the American heartland (including Native American reservations) and over the largest water aquifer in North America – 400,000 k2 – which supplies 30% of water for all of U.S. agriculture. Pedro Alvarez Alvarado cannot stop the Keystone XL pipeline, perhaps he simply “goes along with the flow” – Baker and Bush run and finance Rice University’s institutes. 84% of the water used in Nicaragua comes from wells. Maura Madriz Paladino of the “Alexander Humboldt Center”(an IBIS front) works for the Danes that operate the NGO “IBIS” which has been expelled in 2013 from Bolivia for conspiration, leading to violence against the development of the Tipnis road. (Which some Indian groups wanted especially for fast connection to medical services). “IBIS” is a geopolitical operation located in nations that are of geopolitical interest of U.S.&NATO: European “activists” arouse no suspicion. “IBIS” manages the financing and operations of dozens of NGOs in Nicaragua which in turn can manipulate hundreds of “groups”. “IBIS” is has been the primary organizer of violent opposition to the canal. The visible financing comes from the government of Germany and Finland, and off-shore banking nations Luxemburg, Netherlands, Switzerland and from sources in Denmark: Europeans don’t arouse suspicion. Since the 1990’s “activists” of NGOs from Europe have been stationed in most of Latin America to prevent too much “independence” from the “security leader”.

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This project has so many challenges and some very rather stupid, hap-hazard solutions. The one that really gets me – is to form 2 artificial islands from the dredged materials as a tourist areas???? Wouldn’t that bring more challenges, such as sewage issues being the number one followed by I’m sure a pile more. Having said that…my idea of a tourist destination would sure as hell not include watching damn ugly rust-bucket container ships sail past my balcony.

Another item mentioned, how the water levels might be affected. I’m no expert or even close to understanding all the technical aspects needed for this monstrosity of a project, so I put this question to other readers…If you remove 715 million cu meters of material from the lake bed, would it not be reasonable to assume that the water would replace the cavity, thereby significantly lowering the over-all water levels of the lake?

I think the most troubling portion, is the fact of this lake being vitally important as a fresh water source. People’s absolute necessities should always take priority over any business venture and never put to risk at any cost, and this sure looks risky.

The amount of homes and land that will be expropriated from people where these have been handed down through the generations is very sad indeed. From what I had read before, the people were not informed and approached by Chinese “scouts” escorted by soldiers for F*%#’s sake…how’s that for an introduction to the land owner? If I had of saw that coming…I would have thought we just got invaded!

If you’re determined to seize people’s lands, can you at least please treat these people with respect and not enemies of the state?

INFORMATION…..lots of it, when you’re about to turn the country’s landscape upside down!

When I see the serenity of the photo above., and how it will change., well hell, it’s makes you want to cry.

I hope at the end of the day…since this project is going ahead regardless of any consequences, that people WILL BE PAID FAIRLY for their lands, that NICARAGUA’S citizens are the majority who receive the Jobs and trained for the operations of the locks….not Chinese workers, and they receive FAIR pay! Be responsible and considerate – any corporation which has any class at all ensures that anyone affected by their endeavours is dealt with in a professional manner!

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