Unanswered questions about the environmental and social effects of Nicaragua’s proposed $50-billion transoceanic canal have prompted the government to postpone the start of construction until at least March, according to the commission overseeing the project.
The delay comes after the Britain-based ERM consulting firm that performed the project’s environmental impact assessment said several issues should be further researched before the project proceeds. Those issues include seismic risks to the locks and whether there is sufficient water to fill the 175-mile canal.
The study, which was commissioned by the Chinese company proposing the project, also urges its client to hold further consultations with indigenous communities along the canal’s pathway that will be displaced and relocated.
Many indigenous communities on the eastern side of the canal path have held sometimes-bloody protests in opposition to the project since it was first announced in 2012.
The 14-volume study, which was submitted to the Nicaraguan government in May but made public in the form of a 100-page executive summary last week, also questions whether Lake Nicaragua can survive the dredging of its bottom. The lake, which is a source of drinking water and recreation, is in the pathway of the canal.
“We and [Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega] have made the decision that all studies recommended by the environmental groups have to be undertaken,” said Paul Oquist, executive director of the Nicaragua Grand Canal Commission, in a speech last week at the Council of the Americas in Washington during which he announced the delay of construction.
The Chinese firm HKND, controlled by businessman Wang Jing, was given a 50-year renewable permit in 2013 to build and operate the canal, which it envisions as accommodating ships too big to pass through the Panama Canal.
The government strongly supports the canal, saying the project and side efforts including a new airport and free trade zone, would triple economic output over the first decade of operation and raise the living standards of Latin America’s second-poorest country.
Environmentalists and scientists say it would put at risk pristine wetlands and rainforests, as well as Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest freshwater lake. The canal would also bisect and possibly block the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor over which many tropical species migrate up and down Central America.
The project has the support of a majority of Nicaraguans, according to polls, but is opposed by communities that would be displaced by the canal’s construction, the ERM report acknowledges.
In addition to criticizing the government’s failure to release the full impact study, Jorge Huete-Perez, a biology professor at Central American University in Managua and vice president of Nicaragua’s academy of sciences, said questions remain about the placement and impact of 5 billion cubic meters of dredging material that digging the canal will create -- enough dirt to cover the state of Connecticut in one foot of soil.
Huete-Perez was referring to a section of the study that says the dredged material – the most of any civil project in history, ERM claims – will be placed in 22 “excavated material placement areas,” including three within the boundaries of Lake Nicaragua.
“The summary did not address important questions such as the possibility that dead zones will be created in Lake Nicaragua as a result of massive excavations and removal of sediments during the canal’s construction,” Huete-Perez said.
Kraul is a special correspondent.