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A man, a plan, a canal, Nicaragua

What with one thing and another, I had been completely unaware that there are plans to build another canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, to compete with the existing Panama Canal. This canal will be built by the Chinese and will go through Nicaragua. The graphic from McClatchy gives a good idea of the huge scale of the project. The engineering challenges are massive.

Nicaragua canal

Although a final decision has not been made, plans are being drawn up and funding is being sought for the estimated $60 billion project that is expected to take ten years to complete.

For Nicaragua, a poor nation of 5 million people, the project may punch its ticket out of poverty, creating jobs and prosperity.

For China, the plan would mean easier access to crude oil from Venezuela and a greater foothold in the western hemisphere. Such geopolitical considerations may weigh more for China than the price tag.

I always found it fascinating that due to the way that north and south America are connected, going through the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific required you to actually go from west to east. The new canal will not have that quirk.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    If I recall correctly, going through Nicaragua was a serious contender when the US first became involved in building a canal through Central America.

  2. Chiroptera says

    Heh. And I wonder whether the Chinese would get an exclusive 100-year Chinese controlled canal zone?

  3. hyphenman says

    Good afternoon Mano,

    Just as a bit of scary engineering, there was serious–I remember reading about the project in one of my grandfather’s old Popular Science magazines–consideration of using nuclear weapons to blast a new canal through Central America in the ’60s.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  4. colnago80 says

    As I understand it, the largest warships can pass through the Panama Canal are the Iowa class battleships which could barely make it. That’s one reason why the Japanese built the super-dreadnaughts Yamato and Musashi, because they knew that the US would be reluctant to build anything larger then the Iowas as they would not be able to pass through the canal. As I understand it, none of the new super-carriers can traverse the canal.

  5. cafink says

    We have a similar geographical quirk here in New Orleans due to the twistiness of the Mississippi. Crossing the main bridge from New Orleans proper, which is on the east bank of the river, to the West Bank actually requires driving East.

  6. Menyambal --- making sambal a food group. says

    The United States has been involved in Nicaragua, mostly in a bad way, more than other nations in that area, because of the possibility of building a canal through Nicaragua. I had a map once, from 1930 or something, that had the route of the proposed canal.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    colnago80: As I understand it, none of the new super-carriers can traverse the canal.

    Notice the bit about the current expansion project for the Panama Canal. Bigger ships will be able to make it through after 2015.

    The plans to build another set of locks, larger than the older ones, have led to the creation of New Panamax, based on new lock dimensions of 1,400 ft (427 m) in length, 180 ft (55 m) in beam, and 60 ft (18.3 m) in depth.[2] Naval architects and civil engineers are already taking into account these dimensions for container ships.[11] After this expansion, the Panama Canal will be able to handle vessels of cargo capacity up to 13,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU);[12] currently, it can only handle vessels up to about 5,000 TEU.[13] The New Panamax standard will be able to accommodate ships up to 120,000 DWT.[14]
    However, even after opening the new, much larger locks, there will be ships that will not be able to pass through the Panama canal. …

    Mano, your graphic only mentions distance. Terrain would also be a major consideration. Do you have any further info that would make for a more fair comparison? Cubic tons of dirt to be moved, or some such?

    It would also be interesting to see an environmental impact statement for such a project. No one cared about the environment back in 1904, but I bet the impact of moving water and life forms from one side to the other is not negligible y modern standards.

  8. says

    Reginald: the water in the canal is fresh, and flows out downhill in both directions. Sea life can only cross through it if it is capable of moving from salt to fresh water, or if it rides out the trip in a ship’s bilge water. The bilge water problem isn’t new, but modern regulations on ships require them to change out their bilge water periodically as they travel to stop spreading organisms, but like most international environmental regulations enforcement is spotty. I do know that the choke point at the entrance and exit of the Panama canal is one of the places where it’s easiest to enforce.

    I suppose one can say the damage is done already, if any life was capable of crossing through the canal and damaging the ecosystem in the other ocean it would have done it via Panama sometime in the last 100 years.

  9. Peter White says

    I wonder if the Chinese will need to foment a revolution in Nicaragua to get their canal built? I mean, if the world’s greatest democracy ever, the most indispensable nation, needed to start a revolution to build a canal, how will those Chinese ever manage? ;-)

  10. tbrandt says

    Anyone who takes this canal seriously would be wise to read the comments by someone with the handle Cigars below the following two articles:
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/12/nicaragua-canal-waterway-panama
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/11/nicaragua-chinese-plan-canal-panama
    He argues, convincingly, that the canal makes no financial sense, nobody is coming forward with money, Nicaragua doesn’t even recognize the government of China, the company proposing this is a telecom company that previously promised Nicaragua a satellite program (and presumably wants a telecom deal), and Danny Ortega is using the canal law to expropriate whatever land he wants. In short, this is nonsense, corruption, and fantasy all rolled into one.

  11. Friendly says

    Heh. I wrote a song a few years back called “Irreversible” for which the last line was “A man, a plan, a canal…Nicaragua.” Mano’s great mind thnks alike with my mediocre one, apparently. :-)

  12. tbrandt says

    Just to elaborate on the economics of the canal as in my previous post: the Panama Canal is run for maximum profit, and generates about $1 billion in annual profit on $1.8 billion in revenue (2012 numbers, from their summary pdf). If there were two canals, competition would lower tolls, probably making the total revenue pot smaller. It would be extremely optimistic to assume that, even with more ships, a Nicaraguan Canal could make more than $1 billion in annual revenue (adjusting for inflation). What’s more, it would be much longer than the Panama Canal, and would almost certainly cost more to operate. I cannot see how it would generate more than $500 million in annual profits, even being extraordinarily generous. That would translate into less than 1% return on the $60 billion investment, after waiting 10+ years, before delays and overruns, and ignoring competition from, e.g., a melting Northwest Passage. Alternatively, you could buy 30 year Treasuries tomorrow and get 3.5-4% interest, starting immediately. Who is both rich and stupid enough to throw away $60 billion? China? A government that Nicaragua doesn’t even recognize? I think the answer to the question should be obvious: nobody. There will be no canal.

  13. Mano Singham says

    @tbrandt,

    That is an interesting economic analysis but what caught my eye was the statement that Nicaragua does not recognize China but does Taiwan. I had not known that. It seems bizarre.

  14. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham, #13:

    Not so bizarre when one remembers that the government of Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, traces its history in an unbroken line to the government that ruled before the Communists took over. The PLA never conquored the government; rather, the government evacuated to Taiwan.

    As a result, the default is recognition of the Taiwanese government as the legitimate goverment of China. A foreign state would have had (and most have) to actually take action to switch its recognition to the Beijing government. The main reason that a lot of developing countries have made that switch is that the People’s Republic has been increasingly generous with its foreign aid under the condition that its claims as the legitimate government are recognized.

    Me, I don’t know why it’s taken so long for so many countries to make the switch, unless it’s maybe either just bureaucratic inertia or maybe Taiwan has also been generous with its financial aid.

    What I find interesting, like you, is that Nicaragua seems to still recognize Taiwan. I would have thought that the former Sandanista regime would have made the change.

  15. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @ ^ Chiroptera :

    What I find interesting, like you, is that Nicaragua seems to still recognize Taiwan. I would have thought that the former Sandanista regime would have made the change.

    Maybe they did and the new regime changed it back.

    I wish more nations would defy the bullying and blustering of the People’s Republic of China and recognise Taiwan. Why can’t all nations acknowledge reality and accept both the PRC and Taiwan as independent sovereign nations – including the PRC and Taiwan themselves?

    As for this Nicaraguan canal – sounds like a good idea to me giving another route and set of options and being a good piece of engineering but I don’t really know enough about it to say more.

  16. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    The new canal will not have that quirk.

    Or be so wonderfully palindromic unless they come up with some clever new name for it!

    @ 3. hyphenman : I recall reading / hearing about that and some other pretty major project ideas using nukes too.

  17. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    PS. As well as the Operation Plowshare idea’s linked by #3 hyphenman there were also thoughts of using rockets powered by nuclear bombs notably the Orion Project and Project Daedalus – wonderful SF ideas but not likely to ever built in this reality given the concerns they raise. See :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Daedalus

    Stephen Baxter also has and explores some interesting ideas in his excellent SF alternate history novel ‘Voyage’ where the hypothetical NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) rockets are actually flown with disastrous results.

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