LOCK 'N LOAD

Panama 2014 | ECONOMY | FOCUS: CANAL EXPANSION

On the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal, it is once again expected to transform the nation, this time through a thorough overhaul.

As an iconic interoceanic global trade route, the Panama Canal has been facilitating the transport of goods and materials around the world for a century. Vital for international commerce, the approximately 77-kilometer long waterway allows 13,000 to 14,000 ships to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and vice-versa, each year. The Canal was opened in August 1914, following the signing of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty in 1903, which granted the US complete control over the Canal and the territory flanking it in perpetuity. This right was relinquished in treaties signed by President Carter and President Omar Torrijos in 1977, which designated December 31, 1999 as the handover date of all control to the Panamanian state.

Now representing one-fifth of GDP, the Panamanian maritime sector is of enormous importance, and is by far the fastest-growing sector in the economy. Massive investment in the renovation of the country's shipping infrastructure over recent years has exceeded $1 billion, improving the ports of Balboa and Cristobal on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts respectively. These developments foreshadow the completion of a comprehensive expansion of the Panama Canal, ensuring that docks will be prepared for the unprecedented increase in traffic and cargo that will result. Most recently, President Varela has identified late 2015 as the expected date of completion for the $5.25 billion project, which has been continuously worked on since 2007.

At present, vessels arriving from the Pacific enter Miraflores Docks, where they ascend through two locks to a water level that is 16 meters higher. After transiting the Miraflores Lake, they are again raised to 26 meters above sea level at the Pedro Miguel Locks. On the other side, the Gatún locks take the ships down the full three steps. Up to 63 pyramids the size of those of Egypt could have been created with the excess material dug up for the canal. The primary routes served by ships transiting the passage are from the US east coast to Asia and the west coast of South America, from Europe to South America, and from Canada and the US west coast to Europe.

The beginning of the expansion project launched an economic boom that has turned Panama City into a booming metropolis of over 1 million people, including its immediate hinterland. The 30,000 jobs created by this endeavor contributed to a slashing of unemployment to just over 4% in 2014, contrasting with a figure almost three times higher a decade prior. An organization, Grupos Unidos por el Canal (GUPC), was formed to undertake the massive project. Led by Spanish firm Sacyr, Belgian Jan de Nul, and Italian Constructora Urbana Panama (CUSA) and Impregilo, these companies and many thousands of laborers have been involved in widening the canal and building two new sets of locks to accommodate so-called “New Panamax" vessels.

The new locks consist of three chambers each, with sliding gates, water basins, and filling and emptying systems. Panamax ships are capable of transporting up to 5,000 TEUs. In contrast, New Panamax container ships can move up to 15,000 TEUs and are longer, too. Existing lock chambers are 304.8 meters in length and 32.3 meters in width, but the new docks will be 427 meters in length and 49 meters across. New Panamax ships will transport higher volumes of containerized and bulk cargo, and will easily double the capacity of the canal when fully operational.

The increase in traffic in the canal will augment the already well-established route, on which all major shipping firms have a weekly service at least. However, it has also inspired Panama's Central American neighbor to consider its possibilities. Nicaragua's parliament has voted to offer the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. a 50-year concession to assess the potential of building a second canal across the hemisphere's narrowest point. However, estimates set any potential canal at a length of 278 kilometers, and though it could potentially be at sea level over its full course, seismic and volcanic activity in the country have led some to doubt the project's feasibility.

Panama's waterway has proven its worth, in contrast. After approximately 9 billion long tons of cargo, over 1 million ships, and one swimmer (intrepid traveler Richard Halliburton), the channel is still defining global logistics. Its enlargement will positively impact economies around the world, reducing shipping times and allowing the more efficient transport of goods around the planet. But the economy which will benefit most is Panama's own, thanks to the fortuitous convergence of modern technology and the country's unique location on the narrowest isthmus in the hemisphere.