Plans show new $40bn canal will traverse Lake Nicaragua

The government of Nicaragua and its Chinese partners have published the proposed route for a 278km canal linking the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, expected to cost $40bn. 

If adopted, its Caribbean end would begin at the mouth of the Punto Gorda river, pass through Lake Nicaragua for 105km and reach the Pacific at the Brito River. 

It was reported in January that the need to conduct feasibility studies and choose a route would delay the beginning of construction until 2015. But Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega insisted at the time that work would begin in December of this year, and it appears that this timetable is being adopted. 

It was also reported that the work would take 11 years to complete but, according to Telémaco Talavera, member of the Great Canal Commission – an oversight committee of politicians, academics and businessmen – the canal’s engineers are planning to finish it by 2020.

Building the canal is Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development (HKND), based in the Cayman Islands, a special-purpose infrastructure arm of Chinese telecoms group Xinwei. For Xinwei to be involved surprised many because the company has no experience of projects of this size. Driving it all is Xinwei president Wang Jing. 

Dong YunSung, an engineer with HKND, told a meeting with politicians and academics in Managua that the canal will be 27.6m deep and its width would vary between 230m and 520m. He said the company would also build a port at either end and, like the canal itself, they would be earthquake-resistant.

Opposition to the plan within Nicaragua is likely to centre on the threat posed by a busy shipping route to Lake Nicaragua, which is a source of fresh water for Nicaraguans, as well as a habitat.

Accroding to a 1981 study by the Nicaraguan Institute of Natural Resources and the Environment, 32 tons of raw sewage are released into the lake daily and industry along the shore has been dumping effluent for an extended period of time. 

However, Dong said the route was selected because it would cause the least amount of environmental disruption, and the HKND would create a 400km2 lake linked to Punta Gorda to supply the water for the canal without disrupting Lake Nicaragua.

He said: "The operation of the canal will not cause significant changes to the water level of Lake Nicaragua, nor will it affect the supply of water for productive use by residents in the basin."

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