Mega Canal, Mega Mistake?

Lake Nicaragua
The proposed Nicaragua canal will run through Lake Nicaragua.

Published Jun 19, 2015 6:44 PM by Kathryn Stone

Nicaragua’s mega canal could become a mega mistake an international panel warns.

The group of experts, brought together by Florida International University, claim that $50 billion proposed canal could prove disastrous for Nicaragua if a proper evaluation of the canal’s impact is not undertaken.

A report released this week summarizes the comments and concerns raised the panel of experts who reviewed an early draft of the environmental impact study for the Nicaragua canal. The panelists reviewed ecological and hydrological assessments for project back in March. They found the evaluations were narrow in scope and did not take into account the full impact of the construction and operation of canal facilities.  

“Because of the unprecedented magnitude of the project and the limited information available about some of the constructions plans, the effects of the proposed disturbances on the ecological processes, as well as the level and significance of many of these impacts cannot yet be fully analyzed,” the report says.

In particular the experts raise concern over the short time-table of the study. The study was conducted in 1.5 years, while similar smaller-scale projects typically look at large time periods to conduct their assessments. A proposed 1970s sea-level canal through Panama spent 10 years determining environmental feasibility before scrapping the project.

Similarly, the Three Gorge Dam project in China, which was smaller in scope than the Nicaraguan canal, went ahead based on an environmental study of roughly the same magnitude. The experts claim that the Three Gorge Dam project, has since become a prime example of the unanticipated environmental costs of megaprojects, from frequent landslides to water pollution and even increased seismic activity.

They go on to say that larger regional effects of habitat and species loss must be considered, instead of just the impact of the construction area. Additionally, the panelists raise serious concerns about the lack of data available regarding water quality and flow of the canal, which will pass through Lake Nicaragua, the world’s largest fresh water source.

The proposed Nicaraguan canal, will span 172-mile (278-km) and is expected to rival the expanded Panama Canal in terms of capacity. If completed, it may be operational as early as 2020. Hong Kong-based HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co Ltd (HKND Group) is responsible for construction on the project. 

The experts’ misgivings are based on a preliminary draft of the environmental impact study, however the completed study has not been released to the public. The final Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) was delivered to HKND, as well as the Nicaraguan government May 31.  

“Unfortunately, aside from a few optimistic reports in state-sponsored media claiming that the project is “viable,” the contents of the ESIA remain unknown to Nicaragua’s people and the international community,” the experts say in a written release.

They go on to add, “It’s time for the Nicaraguan government to make [the] assessment of the canal’s environmental and social costs available to the public. Holding it in secrecy not only undermines the power of the Nicaraguan citizenry to assess the project, it calls into question the legitimacy of the entire ESIA process.”

Costa Rican president Luis Guillermo expressed frustration early this month over a lack of information given to his government. Most notably the leader wanted to know about the possible effects of sedimentation in the San Juan River, which runs through both Costa Rica and Nicaragua. 

The report of the panelist findings can be found here.