As the Panama Canal improvements come closer to completion, another plan Northwest of the canal is set to become the largest infrastructure project in Latin America, and a new option for shippers looking for quick passage between the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean.
Nicaragua is set to break ground on a huge interoceanic canal, meant to rival the Panama Canal and backed by China, just before Christmas, the International Business Times reported. The canal has been described as having the potential to lift a significant number of Nicaraguans from poverty, but the project has the country divided before ground has even broken. The public is still unaware of a number of details surrounding the canal project, and the construction of the waterway could have a detrimental impact on the region's environment and local populations.
The $40 billion canal project was approved by a Nicaraguan government committee in July, according to the Journal of Commerce. HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co (HKND Group), the Honk Kong-based group leading the project, and Nicaragua expect the canal to be completed within five years. HKND representatives indicated that the route bisecting the Latin American country would stretch 173 miles long, run 90 feet deep and range between 754 and 1,706 feet wide.
Dong Yunsong, chief of engineers for the canal project, said that the six routes had been studied for the infrastructure project. The route chosen will enter the country on the Pacific side, at the mouth of the Brito River, and wind south of Rivas City through Lake Nicaragua. After the lake, the canal will move along the Tule and Punta Gordas rivers before emptying into the Caribbean at Bluefields Bay.
A canal through Nicaragua remains intensely divisive
The project that will begin Dec. 23 has already faced fierce opposition from individuals who suspect their land will be taken from them in order to make way for the massive infrastructure project, UPI reported. The people who oppose the canal have explained that they were never consulted by the government beforehand.
There are also concerns about the environmental impact that construction on the canal will have, the news outlet explained. Oil spills and pollution could ruin the country's only source of fresh water in Lake Nicaragua. Though the project is set to begin in just a couple weeks, no environmental studies on canal construction have been released to the public.
However, proponents of the project have asserted that it is necessary to boost the country's struggling economy – it is listed by the U.S. as the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, behind Haiti, according to UPI. Francisco Telemaco Talavera of Nicaragua's National Agrarian University has projected that canal construction will create 50,000 construction jobs, as well as 200,000 permanent jobs once the maritime route is functional.
The idea of a canal running through Nicaragua has been around for some time, and even predates the Panama Canal, Conde Nast Traveler explained. Plans to bisect the country with a waterway have been floated since the Spanish conquistadors touched upon the Latin American region's shores hundreds of years ago. Though Nicaragua is wider, it has a large freshwater body along the canal route, was less of a threat in regard to malaria and it's very flat and low – which is helpful when trying to cut a country in two.
Eventually, a French syndicate that owned the land that would someday become the Panama Canal convinced the U.S. Congress, which had recently declared a Nicaragua canal project ready-to-begin, to move the plans to Panama with a postage stamp depicting a smoking volcano, an implication of danger to the Congress members.
With a fourth set of locks being considered in Panama, China continues to grow its presence in Latin America
Meanwhile, south of the planned Nicaraguan canal route, as the Panama Canal expansion project enters its final phases, a fourth set of locks is already being considered, though the third set of locks won't be ready to open until 2016, the Journal of Commerce explained.
And the backer behind the fourth set of locks could come from the same place as the group behind the Nicaragua Grand Canal: China. Jorge Quijano, administrator of the Panama Canal, recently held a meeting with a group led by Mo Wenhe, chairman of the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) and Wei Hua Wang, a representative of the Chinese-Panamanian Office of Business Development. One factor in the decision could be the potential for competition from Nicaragua, though Panama has backtracked on initial criticism it heaped on its Northwest neighbor's plan, declaring that the project wouldn't be a "competitive threat."
The Chinese government could also expand its presence in Nicaragua through HKND, The Bulletin Panama noted. Nothing is stopping the backing-group from endorsing or selling its grant to build the canal to Beijing. If this were the case, then China would have complete control over the territory, through which it could further national interests.