A Gamble Worth Taking: Nicaragua needs canal as Panama did before it

Environmentalists will be pleased by a one-year delay in the commencement of construction of the Nicaraguan Canal, which proposes a new maritime passage from the Atlantic through the Central American continent to the Pacific. With a definitive route not yet mapped out, and various feasibility studies still to be completed, the postponement comes as little surprise.

Several routes have been proposed for the $40bn construction
Several routes have been proposed for the $40bn construction

One of the major concerns surrounding the project revolves around the HKND Group, the Hong Kong company responsible for delivering the canal as part of a generous 50-year concession negotiated with Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government. Many critics believe the engineering project to be far beyond the capabilities of HKND. With the Nicaraguans promised a minority share in all profits generated by the canal, however, Ortega will deem any hesitancy unnecessary. Nicaragua is an impoverished country, one of the poorest in the region. Wracked by crime, it needs a legitimate business source to bolster the country’s economy.

A century ago, the Panama Canal opened. Like the Nicaraguans today, the Panamanians were desperate for its construction. Having only achieved independence from Colombia in 1903 – and that with the active support of American gunboats – Panama had virtually no economy to speak of. With the Americans keen on reducing the length of maritime trade between its Atlantic and Pacific seaboards, the Panama Canal was a popular idea all round.

A monumental feat of engineering, the US desire for a cross-continental canal contributed to Panamanian independence
A monumental feat of engineering, the US desire for a cross-continental canal contributed to Panamanian independence

Having been built with American money and managed by American expertise for several decades, the Panama Canal finally came under full Panamanian control in 1999 after years of negotiations. The Canal has proved to be the lifeblood of the Panamanian economy and from its revenue and operational requirements a flourishing services industry has been established in the country.

With a per capita income rate of approximately $15,300, the average Panamanian is five times better off than the average Nicaraguan citizen. After years of dabbling with contentious Marxist economics, and having suffered periods of US-backed guerrilla warfare, Nicaragua has been reduced to financial ruin.

Daniel Ortega, current president and leader of the Nicaraguan Revolution, fought off the US-backed Contras in the 1980s to establish his socialist government. Unemployment in parts of the country stands at 80%
Daniel Ortega, current president and leader of the Nicaraguan Revolution, fought off the US-backed Contras in the 1980s to establish his socialist government. Unemployment in parts of the country stands at 80%

Despite the potential environmental impacts of constructing a new canal, and question-marks over the owner’s capabilities of bringing the project to fruition, Ortega’s government has to take the gamble.

Whether it is in 2015 or later, construction of the Nicaraguan Canal will commence. If it succeeds, it will transform the economy of Nicaragua and end the monopoly of the Panama Canal, which for a century has dictated maritime traffic between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

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Mawson’s Feat Magnified a Century On: Shokalskiy mission caught short

In attempting to retrace the steps of Douglas Mawson’s 1912-3 Australasian Antarctic Expedition, a seventy-four man team comprising scientists, tourists and crew aboard the Shokalskiy Russian mission ship became trapped by thick sea ice on Christmas Eve, in an event widely covered by the global media. Several painstaking rescue attempts have led to the evacuation – by Chinese helicopter – of the 52 non-crew members, relieving them from a concerning and embarrassing ordeal.

A rapid change in winds moved ice floes that caught the Shokalskiy offguard
A rapid change in winds moved blasted snow and moved pack ice that caught the Shokalskiy offguard

A century ago, Mawson was one of a three-man sledging party – forming a larger expeditionary force of seven exploratory groups – that set out from Cape Denison to take recordings of the geology, meteorology and biology of eastern Antarctica.

Travelling some 500km from the main base camp, one of Mawson’s companions, and several accompanying dogs, were lost when they fell into a crevasse. Having already accomplished much in the name of science, Mawson and his remaining compatriot, Xavier Mertz, turned back towards base.

Mawson's primitive Antarctic base camp Source: Victoria State Library
Mawson’s primitive Antarctic base camp
Source: Victoria State Library

With only one week’s food supplies, and no provisions for the dogs, the recovery mission was apparently doomed. Unlike the people aboard the Shokalskiy, who were well-fed and sheltered from the unpredictably brutal weather of the Antarctic, Mawson and Mertz were forced to survive relentless blizzards, katabatic winds and malnutrition.

In a bid to stave off starvation, the two men began to kill their Husky dogs, consuming the livers now known to contain dangerously high levels of Vitamin A. Nauseous, frostbitten and wracked by delirium, Mertz died a short time later, forcing Mawson to retrace the final 100 miles to camp alone.

Mawson's expedition was an incredible feat of human determination and endurance
Mawson’s expedition was an incredible feat of human determination and endurance

That Mawson returned to camp alive is perhaps one of the greatest human endevaours during an era punctuated by similarly remarkable feats. It is also not surprising that, a century on, a well-equipped, well-informed scientific mission was keen to retrace Mawson’s path both as a testament to the endurance of his achievement and to provide contemporary scientific comparisons to the recordings made by him and his crew.

It is ironic that such a well-provisioned crew as that aboard the Shokalskiy barely made an indent into Mawson’s famed route. It also serves as a reminder that there is no place of touristic voyeurism in a climate as harsh as the Antarctic and that those nations wishing to exploit its natural resources need to undertake further preparation and research if they are to avoid the unhappy end to what was supposed to have been a mission of success and commemoration.