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Technical challenges of a Nicaraguan canal

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Two years after it was first announced, a project by Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Group to build an inter-ocean canal in Central America still presents more questions than answers.

Is the Chinese government behind it?

Would it be retaliation for American moves to limit Chinese claims in what it Beijing considers its territorial waters?

Does anyone have a clue as to the cost?

Given the technical issues involved, can it be built?

The answer at least to the last question is maybe.

In order of difficulty, a Nicaraguan canal presents several challenges.

The locks would have to lift big ships, including Triple-E container carriers, which are 400 meters long and weigh 165,000 tonnes, fully loaded.

On the other hand, the technology to build locks has been around for more than 100 years.

Then there is the jungle.

A 75-kilometer section from the Caribbean coast to the Amerrisque hills passes through swamps, whose mud would clog the canal.

But it should be possible to line the canal with reinforced concrete.

West of the hills, the route passes through lake Nicaragua, which would have to be dredged forever, because it’s shallow.

On the other hand, the route only needs a channel, not the whole lake.

Finally, a canal could harm plant and animal life, by refilling the lake with water from the locks, which includes residues of fuel and oil, as well as other toxic substances.

But maybe China can build an efficient system of recycling, cleaning and waste disposal.

As with much of the proposed project, the answer at least for now is that no one knows.

On the other hand, China has built megaprojects like Three Gorges – at 23 gigawatts of capacity the world’s biggest power plant - and the Qinghai-Tibet Railway – the world’s highest with a maximum altitude of 5000 meters.