Nicaragua plans a big dig to rival Panama canal

The southern part of Ometepe Island is barely touched by modernity. On the single dirt road that flanks Lake Nicaragua, pigs are left undisturbed to cool off in puddles.

But if planners in the nation's capital, Managua, have their way, people here will bear witness to the day's most advanced technology, with boats the length of five soccer fields plodding from the Atlantic to the Pacific, passing Ometepe along the way.

Amid news that the Panama Canal will be expanded to accommodate the growing size and number of ships traversing the globe, Nicaragua has announced its own plan for an interoceanic canal, which planners say would be the world's largest.

Plans to construct a canal across Nicaragua have been around for well over a century. But Mario Alonso, the project's main advocate, says this time it'll happen. He will present legislation to the National Assembly this month, and then open up the project to bidders from as far away as Russia and China, which is now expanding the port facilities it owns on both ends of Panama's canal.

Mr. Alonso says demand drives the project, but a personal mission drives him, as it has others who have promoted such megaprojects before him.

"We are convinced that this is not just a dream but a reality," says Alonso, the former president of the Central Bank of Nicaragua, who now sits on the president-appointed Grand Canal Working Commission and eagerly pulls out maps and studies of the project profile. "This is my own responsibility to give this opportunity to Nicaragua, and if people don't want it, I will find a way for Nicaragua to want it."

Historic rivalry with Panama

Before the Panama Canal got started in 1904, Nicaragua had been its biggest rival. The competition was so fierce that those lobbying for Panama issued stamps with a spewing volcano on Ometepe, to warn of seismic activity. Nicaragua was still so coveted, though, that in 1914, the same year Panama opened, the US signed a treaty with Nicaragua giving it the exclusive rights to build a canal there, too. The treaty was terminated in 1970.

"I'm happy we didn't do it then," Alonso says. "Now we can build a real canal."

Costing $18 billion, the 172-mile-long canal would take 12 years to design and construct, according to the project profile. It would attract megaships that can carry double the load of boats that will be able to cross an upgraded Panama Canal. There are 900 such ships today and an expected 3,000 by 2019.

A US company sailing megaships roundtrip from the East Coast to Japan would save $2 million and 34 days using a Nicaragua canal, planners claim.

Independent experts say it might be tough to convince the world that two canals are needed in Central America. Among the biggest challenges: the cost estimate is more than four times Nicaragua's current GDP of $4.9 billion, according to the US State Department. But the growth in world maritime cargo – an average of 3.9 percent annually over the last 15 years – might work in its favor.

"If you look at where we are getting the supply of goods, so much of it is coming from Asia.... More and more is being manufactured overseas" says Marc Hershman, professor of law and marine affairs at the University of Washington's School of Marine Affairs. "To underestimate [maritime] growth is probably wrong."

The project would be funded entirely by private investors, and Nicaragua would earn a percentage of profits, to be determined, for lending its geography and natural resources.

The importance of such megaprojects reach beyond economics and pragmatics. "A small country can suddenly become a big country," says Paul Finch, editor of the London-based Architectural Review magazine. "Look at Panama. If you didn't have a canal, who cares? [Such projects] make a powerful symbolic statement about the place of that country in the world."

He says it is a single person who is often behind the world's largest projects. "You usually need someone with burning ambition to achieve them. They don't get done by committee," he says.

One man's obsession

In many ways, Alonso is an unlikely face of a canal. A lawyer by training, he doesn't like boats or water, and chooses the mountains over the sea on any vacation. But the canal has been an obsession over the past half century. On a trip to Green Bay, Wisconsin, as a law student in 1964, a local reporter asked him what Nicaragua needed. "Without a doubt," he replied, "we need the canal."

He pored over a 400-page study from Panama, putting sticky marks throughout it over the course of a day and a half. He says a canal in Nicaragua would employ 40,000 during construction and provide some 140,000, direct and indirect permanent jobs, but he envisions a much larger reach: schools adjusting their curriculum to offer maritime law and marine biology, for example.

He says a canal would double the expected GDP in 2025, and that it will create new markets. Trade that can't benefit by today's routes because the size of the ships needed to make such commerce profitable can't wedge through current channels. An example of what he envisions? Huge ships carrying coal from Colombia through Nicaragua en route to California.

Frank Davidson, coeditor of the reference book "Building the World," says he does not dismiss the project simply because it's been an unrealized dream for centuries. "Very large engineering projects sometimes have a history of thousands of years," says Davidson,

How life for locals would change

For residents in Ometepe, a canal seems a thousand more years away. "I can't imagine it," says Maria Elena Alvarado, giggling as she washes her clothes in the lake. A small farmer, she worries whether boats crossing the 50-mile-long stretch of the lake would pollute the water, where she often bathes. Yet she says her isolated community, San Ramon, needs something: the ride to the port, to catch a boat to the mainland, is a bumpy two-hour bus ride. "It's hard here," she says. "If it helps us I accept it."

She, like others in her community, says she'd rather see a small-scale project, like a transport ferry or a barge system. But that, says Wilmar Cuarezma, a researcher for the Institute for Nicaraguan Studies in Managua, is the problem with Nicaragua. "We don't have experience with big projects. It's not part of our culture," he says. "If we continue thinking small, we are never going to move forward."

Mr. Cuarezma worked for the United Nations when plans for a "dry canal," or rail system across the country, were floated in the mid-90s. He traveled through the region talking to poor rural communities that he says would benefit from both "dry" and "wet" canals. "This can change their lives, make them see they are part of something bigger," he says.

Environmentalists are skeptical about an interoceanic canal. They say it will ruin a part of the country whose natural beauty is stunning: tourists flock to misty sunsets over the twin volcanoes of Ometepe, and a lake said to be inhabited by fresh water sharks. "Environmentally it would be a disaster," says Victor Manuel Campos, co-founder of the Humboldt Center, an environmental group in Managua. "The country would have to decide between saving the lake or building the canal."

But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Luisa Amanda Tenorio has fished the lake's waters for decades. A canal would certainly change her life: when she's fishing for days at a time she ties up a hammock to go to bed, disturbed only by the occasional bawl of a howler monkey.

"It would be beautiful, all those big boats," she says, looking south across the lake, where nothing, except water and the sky and distant hills encompass the horizon.

Ms. Llana is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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