5 things you need to know about the Nicaragua Canal

Nicaragua Canal

The construction of the Grand Canal of Nicaragua, which will link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, has been called the largest infrastructure project in the world. The massive project is being built by a Chinese consortium, the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. Limited (HKND) for $50 billion. What is this project? Why build it? What is the environment impact? Here are some basic facts about this mega project.

1. What is the Nicaragua Canal?

The Nicaragua Canal is a shipping route through Nicaragua to connect the Caribbean Sea, (and the Atlantic Ocean), with the Pacific Ocean. Construction started in December 2014. The canal will be 275.5 kilometers (171 miles) long, 26.9 to 30 meters (88 to 98 feet) deep, and 230 to 520 meters (754-1706 feet) wide at its narrowest and widest points, according to the project description by HKND Group.  It begins at the Brito River on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast and exits at Punta Gorda in the Caribbean. Here is a closer look at the route.
NicaraguaLake

The canal includes two ports, a ​​free trade zone in Brito, tourism resorts in San Lorenzo, Boaco, an airport in Rivas, and a network of new roads to connect all the sub-projects, power generating and transmission facilities required to operate the canal.

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(Graphics: HKND Group)

2. Who will build the canal?

In June 2013, the Nicaraguan government granted the planning, construction, and management of the canal to HKND Group, chaired by Wang Jing, the president of Xinwei Telecom Enterprise Group. The agreement is for 50 years and is renewable for another 50 years.

FILE - In this June 14, 2013 file photo, President Daniel Ortega, left, and Chinese businessman Wang Jing hold up a concession agreement for the construction of a multibillion-dollar canal at the Casa de los Pueblos in Managua. The Chinese company granted a concession to build and operate a transoceanic canal across Nicaragua said Thursday, Jan. 8, 2014, that the project will create jobs for 25,000 Nicaraguans and 25,000 more for foreigners. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix, File)

In this June 14, 2013 file photo, President Daniel Ortega, left, and Chinese businessman Wang Jing hold up a concession agreement for the construction of a multibillion-dollar canal at the Casa de los Pueblos in Managua. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix, File)

According to the HKND website, there are already various partners involved in the project. “Currently, HKND has entrusted China Railway Construction Corporation, to undertake technical feasibility studies, McKinsey & Company to provide fact based data and analysis, and Environmental Resource Management to undertake social and environmental evaluations and impact assessments…HKND has invited XCMG, SBE from Belgium and MEC Mining from Australia to help on the project….”

Chinese Foreign Ministry's Spokeswoman Hua Chunying

Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Spokeswoman Hua Chunying

Many people asked whether the Chinese government is behind the scenes. On December 20, 2014  Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said:

“The Chinese company’s engagement in the Nicaragua project is an act of itself, and has nothing to do with the Chinese government.”


3. Why build the canal?

Shorter shipping distances reduce transportation costs. Searching for more convenient maritime trade routes is always the goal for business. Modern container ships are larger and need deeper water than can currently be accommodated by the Panama Canal.

Maps Show the Long History of Nicaragua’s Canal Dreams ( U.S. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.)

Maps Show the Long History of Nicaragua’s Canal Dreams ( U.S. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.)

With the location between the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, Nicaragua is the one of the best options for building a interoceanic shipping route.  Lake Nicaragua on the west side of the country reduces the amount of land that would need to be dredged to build the canal. ma001012carib

The U.S. proposed building the canal several times in history, but a civil war in Nicaragua and an invasion by filibuster William Walker intervened to prevent the canal from being completed.  Despite the Panama Canal opening in 1914, interest in building the Nicaragua route continued.


4. How does it compare with the Suez and Panama Canals?

PANAMA CANAL* SUEZ CANAL NICARAGUA CANAL
LENGTH   77.1 KM  193.3 KM  275.5 KM
 WIDTH  150-300 M  280-345 M  230-520 M
 DEPTH  12.3 M  22.5 M  26.9-30 M

*  A wider lane of locks is currently under construction and is due to open in 2016.
Sources: HKND GROUP, AFP.

As an important conduit for linking Asia, Europe and Africa, the 193.3 km (120 mile) long Suez Canal is known as the throat of Europe, it shortens the shipping distance from Asia to Europe around The Cape of Good Hope by about 10,000 kilometers (6213 miles). Known as the spine of the Americas, the Panama Canal stands at 77.1 km (48 miles) long linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Panama Canal enables ships traveling from the East Coast and the West Coast of North America to shorten the distance by about 15,000 km (9,320 miles) from the previous route around Cape Horn at the tip of South America.
The Suez and Panama canals have also contributed to the development and progress of civilization through the facilitation of global trade and promotion of friendly relations between nations.
However, The Panama and Suez Canals were designed and built over a century ago. Globally there are ever increasing ship sizes and maritime trade volumes. Even when taking into account the present Panama Canal expansion there is a need for a canal on a much grander scale. 

5. How will the canal impact the environment?

HKND Group said it hired Environmental Resources Management to independently assess the environmental and social impact of the routes under consideration, and it ensures that all Project decisions, including those related to design, construction and operations, are made in full knowledge of the potential impact to people and the environment.

However, some scientists have criticized no economic or environmental feasibility studies have yet been revealed to the public. The Nicaraguan government has not solicited its own environmental impact assessment. Published papers point out various problems.

Axel Meyer & Jorge A. Huete-Pérez: “Conservation: Nicaragua Canal could wreak environmental ruin“, Nature, Feb. 19 2014

“Lake Nicaragua would also serve as the reservoir for the canal’s lock system, requiring dams to be constructed in an area of frequent seismic activity, which would increase the risk of local water shortages and flooding. The lake would probably suffer from salt infiltration in the lock zones, as in locks of the Panama Canal.”

Rachel Nuwer: Nicaragua Plans to Bisect the Country With a Massive Canal, SMITHSONIAN.COM, Feb. 20, 2014

“The canal and its accompanying ports would also bulldoze over endangered sea turtle nesting beaches on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as impact or destroy coral reefs and mangroves, which—in addition to their importance for biodiversity—help buffer inland Nicaragua from tropical storms. “

Several thousand people marched through Nicaragua’s capital on Dec. 3, 2014 to protest the canal project, saying they were fearing they would be displaced, and possibly without fair compensation.

 A protest march in San Jorge against the construction of the planned interoceanic canal. Photograph: Esteban Felix/AP

A protest march in San Jorge against the construction of the planned interoceanic canal. Photograph: Esteban Felix/AP

Story compiled with the information from CCTV, Associated Press, AFP, the Guardian and HKND.

  • itaia

    The construction of the Panama canal and the technical and time span for completion cannot be accepted as a measure to discuss the projected canal in Nicaragua. Over a century of technical advances have provided a completely different environment for this project. As an example, the canal to divert water from the Xingu river to the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam in a remote area of northern Brazil, required the removal of the same amount of earth as the amount of earth removed over a century ago for the Panama Canal. The canal for Belo Monte was built between 2011 and 2014.