Interoceanic canal disputes, past and present

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In 1964 Congress established the Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal Study Commission with a view toward determining the feasibility of constructing a sea level canal to allow ships to move between the Pacific and Caribbean Seas without the delays of passing through locks. Studies were conducted from 1965 through 1970. The lead agency was the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Five alternate routes were identified, with costs ranging from $620 million for excavating using a combination of nuclear devices and conventional methods to $13.6 billion employing only conventional digging techniques to cross Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepic. The studies concluded that use of nuclear explosives was out of the question, and that construction using conventional methods was not economically justifiable.

Advocates of a sea level canal disagreed and continued to beat their drums. Studies resumed between 1982 and 1993 under the auspices of a group consisting of representatives of the United States, the Republic of Panama, and Japan.

Oceanographers and climatologists expressed concerns. They pointed out that the sea level in the Pacific was ten inches higher than in the Caribbean, and there would be a constant flow of water from the former into the latter, and that such a flow could possibly alter ocean currents and result in climate changes. Ichthyologists noted that species composition of fish populations differed between the two and that species’ interchange could have adverse unintended consequences. “Pure unfounded speculation,” was the gist of the advocates’ response.

But then, another fly in the ointment surfaced. Biologists who had studied herpetology pointed out that venomous sea snakes occurred in the Pacific but not in the Caribbean, the Atlantic, or the Gulf of Mexico. A sea level canal would allow these snakes access to these latter water bodies, where they would thrive. Publication of this biological warning elicited storms of protest from chambers of commerce, residents, and resort owners in Gulf and Atlantic states and in Caribbean islands. “We contend with hurricanes, sharks, jellyfish, rip currents, and run-outs, and we certainly don’t want our residents and tourists to be concerned about being bitten by poisonous sea snakes,” was the hue and cry of the protesters. All the talk about constructing a sea level canal came to a screeching halt. So, the next time someone asks, “What are poisonous sea snakes good for?,” you can reply, “Poisonous sea snakes stopped all the foolishness about constructing a sea level canal between the Pacific and the Caribbean and probably saved the American taxpayers a boat-load of money.”

Passing through the Panama Canal requires going through locks and through Gatun Lake, one of the largest man-made freshwater lakes in the world. The locks and Gatun Lake prevent water flowing from the Pacific into the Caribbean, disallows invasion of Pacific sea snakes into the Caribbean, and prevents intermingling of fish between the two water bodies.

Another interoceanic canal is being proposed, this one by the government of Nicaragua. Last week the Nicaraguan Congress agreed to grant a 50-year concession to a Hong Kong company, the HKNCD Group, to build a $40 billion cross-country shipping canal to compete with the Panama Canal. The canal would enter from the Caribbean via the San Juan River and ships would pass through Lake Nicaragua, a large, natural freshwater lake. The San Juan River is the boundary between the eastern one-third of the country and Costa Rica. Although Nicaragua legally has control of the river itself, Costa Rica owns the land on the river’s south side. The two countries have long been at odds over riparian rights along the river.

The Republic of Panama will be displeased. The country has the third- or fourth-largest economy in Central America, and revenue from the Panama Canal’s tolls is a significant portion of its GDP. Another entity likely to object is the company that operates the canal, Hutchinson Whampoa, which, ironically, is, like the HKNCD Group, headquartered in Hong Kong.

As negotiations proceed, watch for fur to fly.

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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