When construction crews begin digging a new canal this month across Nicaragua, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic, it’ll be a boon to global shipping and, the government says, to the economy of the second-poorest nation in the Americas. But activists, scientists and others are increasingly alarmed by the environmental impact of a 173-mile artificial waterway—wider, deeper and three and a half times the length of the Panama Canal
Developed by Wang Jing, an enigmatic Chinese industrialist with ties to China’s ruling party, the Grand Nicaragua Canal will cost an estimated $40 billion and take five years to build. At 90 feet deep and 1,706 feet across at its widest, the channel will accommodate the newest cargo supertankers, which are longer than the Empire State Building is tall and carry 18,000 shipping containers. The vessels are too big to pass through the Panama Canal (even after a $5 billion expansion is completed) or to dock in any U.S. port.
The new canal and its infrastructure, from roads to pipelines to power plants, will destroy or alter nearly one million acres of rainforest and wetlands. And that doesn’t include Lake Nicaragua, a beloved 3,191-square-mile inland reservoir that provides most Nicaraguans with drinking water. The canal cuts through the lake, and critics say ship traffic will pollute the water with industrial chemicals and introduce destructive invasive plants and animals.

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(Guilbert Gates)

Plus, the canal route lies in the middle of a hurricane belt, says Robert Stallard, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “You’re likely going to be looking at hurricanes vastly more powerful than anything that ever hit Panama, and ever will,” Stallard says. A storm like Hurricane Mitch, which killed 3,800 people in Nicaragua in 1998, would probably cause the canal to flood, triggering mudslides that would breach locks and dams. Communities, homes, roads and power lines would be swamped.
The Nicaraguan government has yet to release promised analyses of the canal’s likely environmental impacts, and has even dodged neighboring Costa Rica’s request to share disaster plans. “We’ve got a lack of information and a potentially big threat to the environment,” says Jorge A. Huete-Pérez, vice president of the Academy of Sciences of Nicaragua. “The government just wants to rush the thing through.” The canal’s true benefits can’t be calculated, Huete-Pérez and others argue, as long as the costs to Nicaragua’s forests, waterways and wildlife remain hidden.