These are the Panama Canal’s Miraflores locks just outside of Panama City. The 101-year-old Atlantic-Pacific link may have competition before the end of the decade courtesy of the Grand Canal of Nicaragua, an unlikely but long-sought project on which ground is scheduled to be broken next month.
To connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans with a 278 kilometer long canal via Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s biggest lake and largest source of fresh water. It’s to be between 27.6 and 30 meters deep, and 230 and 520 meters across at its narrowest and widest.
The price tag?
Including the construction of two ports, a free trade zone with residential housing for 140,000 people, an international airport, a series of tourism complexes, several highways and a power plant, cost estimates range from $40 billion and $50 billion USD, more than four times Nicaragua’s gross domestic product.
And who’s in charge?
Thanks to a generous deal granted by the Nicaraguan government, Chinese tycoon Wang Jing, a somewhat enigmatic businessman whose net worth is listed at $6.4 billion, a pile of cash that lands him just outside of China’s top 10 richest people, according to Forbes.
His company, the HKND Group, was granted a 50-year concession by the Nicaraguan government last year, a tax-free deal with an option to extend to a century. It remains a mystery how a company with no track record in large civil engineering projects, let alone one that will be the largest and most expensive in Central American history, could have been given the concession in a process that included no other bidders.
That’s just one question of many that have been raised since the announcement of the deal was made in June 2013. On most, neither Wang nor Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega –who has paved the way for the canal’s rubber stamp approval at every level of Nicaraguan government– have been particularly forthcoming. Indeed, the biggest criticism of the deal from the start has been of its glaring lack of transparency.
From Ometepe Island, February 1994