Panama Canal making largest expansion ever to accommodate bigger ships
MIRAFLORES LOCKS, Panama (AP) — Creeping between the jungle and crowds of eager tourists, the oil tanker slides along a ribbon of murky water that makes up the Panama Canal's locks.
Taut chains running from the ship's hull to nearby locomotives hold the massive tanker steady as its scuffed metal sides pass only inches from the lock's own scraped walls. A strong gust of wind, and the ship carrying crude from the Caribbean to El Salvador would meet the lock's worn walls with a loud thump.
Ten percent of the world's ships are unable to pass through the narrow waterway, and the canal — hoping to remain one of the fastest and easiest shipping routes between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans — is undergoing its biggest expansion since workers carved the 50-mile watery path through Panama's mountains.
The project, which includes plans for the world's biggest lock, will drastically alter the country's landscape, turning jungle communities into lakes and forcing thousands from their homes.
"If we want to maintain Panama as a route of preference, we have to look at expanding the canal," canal administrator Alberto Aleman Zubieta said. "We have to adjust the canal to the dimensions that the industry has already decided on."
The canal has agreed to pay a Belgian-French consortium $1.6 million to come up with a design for a third set of locks that would be nearly twice as wide, 40 percent longer and 25 percent deeper than current locks, allowing giant ships that haven't even been designed yet to pass through the canal.
Still, the biggest challenge might not be designing the locks — but finding the water that will allow them to operate.
The canal functions the same way it has since it opened 87 years ago: by gravity. Boats are lifted into and lowered from a series of lakes and canals by locks that fill and empty with water. Each operation uses 55 million gallons of water that is spilled — and never recovered — from the freshwater Gatun Lake above.
A new set of locks would require more water than Gatun Lake can provide. Engineers are studying the possibility of recycling water and building a second man-made lake farther up in the mountains, pumping the extra water down to Gatun, possibly through giant pipes or a river.
Along the banks of Gatun Lake, far from the Panama Canal's cargo ships and yacht traffic, residents use the water as their road, paddling from home to home or to the nearest store on grizzled, hollowed-out canoes.
"They talk about development, but what kind of development is it to flood everything?" said Marco Sanchez, who is trying to organize farmers to fight for their land.
Many have lived along the lake for several generations, moving to higher ground after their ancestors' homes were flooded to build the canal. The majority were never compensated, and now residents are facing losing their land once again.
Aleman Zubieta said residents will be compensated, but Valeria Martinez is skeptical. She's already saving the $60 she'll need to build another one-room hut on higher ground for her two children and four grandkids — not easy on $50 a month.
"The boats have to pass," she said. "I can't do anything about it."
Since taking control of the canal from the United States in 1999, Panama has run the waterway like a for-profit business rather than a non-profit government entity. It has focused on cutting costs and modernizing, recently finishing a project to replace the mechanical systems that used to open the locks' gates with hydraulic technology.
Many U.S. conservatives feared Panama would mismanage the canal. But Aleman Zubieta notes that it has finished several expansion and modernization projects years ahead of schedule, including a $300 million project that widened an 8-mile stretch called the Culebra Cut and boosted the canal's traffic potential by 20 percent.
Officials also have begun a $190 million, seven-year project to deepen Gatun Lake, digging a three-foot-deep path along the lake bottom that follows the canal's shipping route. The expansion will allow the lake to store more water and let ships carry more cargo.
The projects are aimed at ensuring that ever-growing grain and oil tankers, two of the canal's top customers, continue to use the narrow waterway.
Between 1998 and 2000, the number of Panamax boats crossing the canal increased by 5 percent to 35.4 percent of canal traffic. Panamax are the largest ships that can pass through the canal, and officials expect the number of these boats in circulation to continue to grow, along with the number of ships that are too big to fit through the canal.
Pushed by a growing world economy, the shipping industry is building larger boats.
Sometimes the Panamax boats, which are more than 100 feet wide, clog the canal and create days-long waits that discourage smaller ships from using the waterway, said Basil Brentwood, a logistics director for New York-based Cargo International Logistics Inc.
"It's a panic there sometimes," he said.
Although his company doesn't use Panamax ships, which are generally reserved for big bulk carriers like oil tankers, it ships 15 percent of its business through the canal. The majority of its containers move by train across the United States because it is faster. But that could change if the canal expands, reducing the average 22-hour wait to enter the locks.
"They really have no choice," Brentwood said of the canal's plans to expand. "It's inevitable. In a way, I'm surprised they didn't get further with it already."
The United States, which finished construction of the canal in 1914, started to build a third set of locks in 1939 but was forced to abandon the project because of World War II.
For now, large ships must simply make do, carefully sliding through the canal's narrow passages.
Standing on deck as his oil tanker slowly sinks into the Pacific Ocean, Capt. Barend Krum smiles as tour guide Ana Yansi Scott rattles off facts about the canal only a few feet away on land.
"We'll be back in two weeks," he calls out to her.
"You are a frequent client," she teases. "You should ask for the discount."