WATER – All important. Under Threat.

Prompted by an article in my daily English-language newsletter called A.M. Costa Rica I was reminded of a potential problem which had been quietly lurking in a back corner of my mind ever since we visited Nicaragua in 2013. The object of my concern is an interoceanic shipping canal which José Daniel Ortega Saavedra, President for life [de facto*] of the Republic of Nicaragua insists must be build to eradicate poverty in his country.

[* The Nicaraguan National Assembly approved constitutional amendments in 2014, terminating both term limits for the presidency and the requirement to receive at least 35% of the vote.]

President Ortega’s $50 billion canal called the “Nicaragua Grand Canal” is projected to be 278 Km or 172 miles long, connecting the Pacific with the Atlantic ocean, thus effectively bisecting Central America. It will be between 230 to 520 (!) meters or 754 to 1,700 feet wide with 30 m or 100 ft deep shipping lanes. With these dimensions, it has the capacity for more than 5000 super tankers or mega container ships to pass through its locks each year.

In June of 2014, only nine months after our visit when the canal was mentioned only as a dream, a far off possibility, a longing in Ortega’s heart, the Nicaraguan government granted the canal concession to a private company specifically formed for this project. The Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Group HKDN is a Chinese consortium with no known expertise or experience in major engineering work. To the best of my knowledge, the Nicaraguan government never published a request for bids for their canal project.

On December 22, 2014, construction of the Nicaragua Grand Canal commenced with a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony under exclusion of the foreign press. The initial construction consisted of building a road to bring in the heavy machinery, which will be needed to build the port at the mouth of the river Brito at the Pacific coast. Defying the heavy police/military presence, protesters attempted to block the road between the building site and the capital of Managua, where the Chinese financier and President Ortega celebrated the questionable event. Nicaraguan environmentalists assembled in front of Parliament, asking for the feasibility study of the canal project to be made public. At that time, I believe, there had not been a study of any kind.

The HKDN Group proposes the development of several further projects alongside the canal itself, the locks, and two ports. There will be a trade free zone, an international airport, resort facilities and additional infrastructure. Also proposed are a power station plus a steel and a cement factory.

Doesn’t that all sound great? Progress, jobs, stability, giving one of the poorest nations in Central America a chance to prosper! If it only were that simple. The Nicaraguan government hasn’t spoken yet as to how their citizen’s situation might realistically improve. Octavio Ortega Arana, a Nicaraguan who runs the Consejo Nacional por la Defensa de Nuestras Tierras, Lago y Soberanía [National Council for the Defense of Our Land, Lake and Sovereignty] an initiative opposing the canal, makes an interesting statement. A canal of such immense size can’t be dug with picks and shovels, he points out, it will be constructed with sophisticated machinery nobody in his country knows how to operate. Extrapolating from this idea, and taking into account that President Ortega’s secret deal with the Chinese consortium gave a foreign power the absolute right to run the canal operation including a 10 Km wide autonomous zone on both sides of the canal and control the lake and associated (formerly) protected areas for the next 116 years, will there be advantages for the locals? Or will they remain in the usual unskilled labor segment with a pittance for wages? Or will they be trained as foot soldiers? All we know at this point is Señor Ortega Arana’s claims that 66 of the 153 municipalities in Nicaragua are opposed to the canal project. He estimates that more than 100 000 citizens will lose their land through expropriation without compensation.

Yet there is more. What we’ve discussed so far are internal Nicaraguan affairs and none of my business as a foreigner living in Costa Rica. However, we must be aware of the potentially catastrophic and far-reaching environmental impact of a construction project of such mammoth proportions. Above all the impact on Lake Cocibolca (also called Lake Nicaragua), the main freshwater reservoir for all of Central America. The aquifer beneath the lake also feeds Costa Rican water sources, therefore we have a direct and urgent concern despite the fact that the canal itself will be located in a foreign country. As Nicolás Boeglin of the Universidad de Costa Rica points out “Water does not respect borders.” The canal may allow sea water to enter the lake. The ships may bring a litany of contaminants, from invasive species to petroleum pollution …..

And have we still not learned that any alteration of a given biotope will have incalculable consequences, some of which might be devastating? 

These are links to several informative recent publications.

– March 4, 2015, an article by Mike Williams published in the RICE UNIVERSITY NEWS & MEDIA

Scientists question rush to build canal

– March 5, 2015, a blog post by Constantine Alexander with more detail on the efforts to halt the canal project until the scientific community has a chance to evaluate its impact. Please watch the DW video clip at the end of his post. You’ll see the sincerity and the anguish of the affected people. This excellent post has many useful links.

Scientists question rush to build canal

– June 2, 2015, a post by WORLD MARITIME NEWS reporting that an environmental study has finally been done, but the findings are not (yet) available somehow. The spokes person’s comments are rather wishy-washy!

Nicaragua Canal Eco-Social Study Delivered

And to finish with a punch, a summary of the article everyone is talking and writing about:

Environ Sci Technol. 2015 Apr 7;49(7):3989-96. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.5b00215. Epub 2015 Mar 13.

Scientists raise alarms about fast tracking of transoceanic canal through Nicaragua


Seeking economic growth and job creation to tackle the nation’s extreme poverty, the Nicaraguan government awarded a concession to build an interoceanic canal and associated projects to a recently formed Hong Kong based company with no track record or related expertise. This concession was awarded without a bidding process and in advance of any feasibility, socio-economic or environmental impact assessments; construction has begun without this information. The 278 km long interoceanic canal project may result in significant environmental and social impairments. Of particular concern is damage to Lake Cocibolca, a unique freshwater tropical lake and Central America’s main freshwater reservoir; damage to regional biodiversity and ecosystems; and socio-economic impacts. Concerned about the possibly irreparable damage to the environment and to native communities, conservationists and the scientific community at large are urging the Nicaraguan government to devise and reveal an action plan to address and mitigate the possible negative repercussions of this interoceanic canal and associated projects. Critical research needs for the preparation of a comprehensive benefit-cost analysis for this megaproject are presented.

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