The Panama Canal took a decade to complete, cost the lives of thousands of workers and proved one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken.
So why not a repeat performance?
Earlier this month, the Nicaraguan legislature approved construction of a canal to compete with the Panama Canal, an endeavor that would double the number of shortcuts between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The project would apparently be built by a Chinese telecommunications equipment firm, with financing largely coming from China, according to the magazine The American.
The project envisions building a canal as long as 178 miles (the Panama Canal is 48 miles, by comparison), as well as two deep-water ports, two free-trade zones, an oil pipeline, a railroad and an international airport, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The cost is estimated at a staggering $40 billion, about four times the country’s annual gross domestic product.
Supporters of the latest iteration of the project, approved last week, hope that it will propel Nicaragua out of its economic doldrums by bolstering employment and economic growth, added the Journal.
“But there is also ample suspicion that the project will flounder, as so many others have done since the first government contract for a canal through Nicaragua was awarded in 1825,” the publication added.
Among potential pitfalls is Nicaragua’s seismic stability. Volcanos and earthquakes are an issue in the nation, with 2,000 dying in 1931 quake in the nation’s capital, Managua, and 5,000 more in a 1972 tremor in the same area.
“Since official sources list six possible routes for the new canal, all through Lake Nicaragua, the geological risks are still unknown,” according to The American. “And it is possible that the risks do not really matter to the Sandinista leadership as long as construction money pours into the nation’s economy.”
Finally, it’s uncertain a new canal would even be financially viable, especially given that the Panama Canal is currently being widened to accommodate larger ships.
“It is not clear that we will need more capacity than the widened Panama Canal in the next few decades,” The American noted.
“Geographer Jean-Paul Rodrigue told the Wall Street Journal that the Nicaraguan canal is possibly ‘the biggest white elephant in human history,’ and noted in an interview last year that Nicaraguan political instability made the project doubtful,” it added.