MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Nicaragua is trying to revive a centuries-old dream of building an inter-ocean canal, a project experts say could take 11 years to build, cost $40 billion and require digging about 130 miles of waterway.
The government is seeking to rush approval of a canal linking the Pacific to the Atlantic through the country's congress in less than two weeks in a nation that doesn't even yet have a paved road connecting the two oceans. And some congressmen are asking why there's such a rush, calling for a cool head and a careful consideration of costs and benefits, both environmental and economic.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega presented the project just Tuesday and hopes to submit it to at least an initial vote on Monday, and gain final approval by Friday.
Just as the Panama Canal was a projection of growing U.S. power at the start of the 20th century, the Nicaragua project is an expression of China's growing influence and financial clout around the world. Some are concerned, however, that while China's record in big infrastructure projects is solid, its track record on environmental sensitivity is unenviable.
The demand will probably be there by the time the project is finished, said Jason Bittner, director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of Southern Florida. The question is whether the route can compete with its two big competitors, the century-old Panama Canal and the "land bridge" of railway networks that connect U.S. West Coast ports with the East Coast.
"I don't anticipate there being any reduced demand in trade between the global trading partners, so East Asia and the eastern United States will continue to have significant trade," said Bittner. "If you make this large public sector investment, it will be used, as long as it's priced properly, as long as the Panama Canal isn't significantly undercutting it."
Nicaragua, like Panama, which is currently expanding its own canal to handle wider ships, has lots of water. But much of Nicaragua's water is earmarked for human use, and its lush rivers are too environmentally sensitive to be simply dredged into waterways or dammed to provide water to operate locks. Panama faced few such restrictions in the early 1900s when its canal was built.
In a previous presentation of the project presented in 2006, the promoters acknowledged there would probably have to be some dam-building, perhaps on rivers as diplomatically and environmentally sensitive as the San Juan river, which runs along the border with neighboring Costa Rica.
With 1.7 billion gallons of water per day needed to run Nicaragua's proposed locks, and tens of millions of tons of excavation needed — the canal will be 200 feet (60 meters) deep in places — the project looks daunting.
But Bittner noted that these projects usually do.
"Certainly in scope, in technology even the just effort of doing so, it is really not that much different from cutting the original Panama Canal," he said.