Nicaragua Canal Threatens Central America’s Largest Lake

Fans of a plan to build a canal across Nicaragua that’s deeper, wider and three times longer than the Panama Canal say the project will significantly raise the GDP of the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti. Critics say the cost is too high.

The project will displace farmers and indigenous communities, affect and possibly destroy three United Nations-designated biosphere reserves and cut through Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest freshwater source.

Despite the apparent imminence of the secretive project scheduled to break ground next week, protests are growing against the canal, which will also slice up almost a million acres of rainforest and wetlands.

Last week thousands marched through the Nicaraguan capital Managua, led by farmers who refuse to turn their land over to HKND Group, the Hong Kong company that won rights to the route without competition under a deal announced by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in 2012 — after it was made behind closed doors. The National Assembly later approved the concession, though results of feasibility and environmental studies have not been made public.

In fact, the environmental impact report isn’t even finished yet, according to Alberto Vega, a partner at Environmental Resources Management, the international company conducting it. “It will be made available to the everyone when completed,” he said by email.

Jorge Huete-Pérez, who heads the Molecular Biology Center at Nicaragua’s Universidad Centroamericana, believes it’s possible the data will never be public. “There’s nothing to evaluate because there’s no information,” he said recently in an interview over Skype. “We don’t really know what the environmental impact will be.”

Bigger, Longer, Deeper

Unlike its rival in Panama, the Nicaraguan canal will accommodate megaships that aren’t yet in use. For decades the Panama Canal has only been able to accommodate Panamax-size ships. But expansions currently underway in Panama will enable passage of New Panamax vessels — three times the capacity of Panamax ships — which can be as wide as a professional football field and more than three times as long.

HKND, the Chinese company created solely to manage this project, has denied allegations that it operates on behalf of the government in Beijing. It says business — not geopolitics — drive the plan to create a Nicaraguan Canal with nearly double the capacity of the improved Panama Canal, enabling passage of futuristic ships that exceed current “Ultra Large Container Vessel” specifications.

Photo of a ship the expanded Panama Canal will be able to accommodate, courtesy JAXPORT. The planned canal for Nicaragua would double that capacity.

The superships of the future will feed Asia’s increasing demand for coal, crude oil and liquefied natural gas. “Recently, North America’s natural gas production has rapidly accelerated without any signs of slowing down,” HKND’s website notes. “The Nicaragua Canal will be situated along the ideal route between the Gulf of Mexico, Japan and South Korea. It will provide a shorter shipping route than the Panama Canal for time-sensitive fuel cargoes,” the site says, adding that eastern U.S. and Colombian coal suppliers are also interested in exporting to Asia via the bigger bulk carriers.

[I may write soon about whether ultra large container vessels are efficient or even helpful.]

These ships will require a waterway that is 27.6 meters deep and some 520 meters wide, Huete-Pérez and his colleague Axel Meyer at the University of Konstanz in Germany reported earlier this year in a commentary in the journal Nature. “Lake Nicaragua, however, has an average depth of only 15 meters,” they said. “The extensive dredging required would dump millions of tons of sludge either into other parts of the lake or onto nearby land.”

Such dredging would be far more complicated than merely stirring up mud, according to a recent Confidencial interview with Jaime Incer Barquero, a former minister at Nicaragua’s Environment and Natural Resources Ministry, because the lake has an island with an active volcano. “The lake has a rocky substrate of volcanic origin,” Incer Barquero said, as translated by ChinaFile. “The problem is in determining what depth, density, or breadth covered by the rocky substrate would need to be dynamited. When you stir this up, it muddies the water, which loses its potability and suitability for domestic use.”

Ferry to Ometepe

Ometepe. Photo by Rebecca Carroll

That could affect all aquatic life in what Incer Barquero said is the most biologically diverse tropical lake in the Americas. And then there’s the even more direct impact on people: “Consider that, in a few decades, Managua will need water from Lake Nicaragua, because as the capital’s population grows and you have urban expansion, at the same time the filtering capacity of the lake’s Southern basin decreases, meaning that the final recourse for Managuans not to die of thirst is to take water from Lake Nicaragua,” Incer Barquero said, noting that demand for drinking water won’t just come from Managua but potentially all of Nicaragua’s larger cities.

Huete-Pérez is pessimistic that the secretive project many believed wouldn’t really get off the ground can be stopped before it’s scheduled Dec. 22 groundbreaking, even if the independent reports and data are made public. “There’s no chance that those results are going to be something we can trust or that they would influence decision making,” he said. “Ometepe could be covered by water. When you ask those questions, all they tell you is ‘Don’t worry about it. We’re taking care of that.’”

Here’s a 10-minute movie about indigenous Rama people on Nicaragua’s eastern coast who were never consulted about the project — in violation of national laws and international conventions, according to the video — even though their lives will be completely disrupted:

This Land is for All of We: A small Rama community in Bangkukuk, Nicaragua, speaks out about the Grand Canal Project from PrettyGoodProductions on Vimeo.

Protesting farmers have vowed to fight for their land to the end, even if the Nicaraguan army is involved. They believe the 50 year concession to HKND — which did not respond to a request for comment submitted through its website — was a bum deal that fails to protect them.

Critics also note that there is no guarantee that promised GDP boost will be distributed to more than a few or even that most of it will stay in Nicaragua, the poorest country on its side of the globe after Haiti.

This story has been updated with additional comment.