After months of back and forth, and much scepticism from both inside and outside the country, Nicaragua appears to have finally confirmed the route of its US$40bn inter-oceanic canal.
A committee comprising government officials, academics and business leaders approved a 172-mile route proposed by executives of the HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. Ltd (HKND) leading from the mouth of the Brito River on the country’s Pacific Coast to the Punto Gorda River on the Caribbean.
HKND, based in Hong Kong, is headed by Chinese businessman Wang Jing. Jing made his money in the telecoms industry and his lack of experience in infrastructure projects of this kind has attracted criticism from some quarters.
At the proposed length, the Nicaragua waterway would be almost three times as long as the Panama Canal that it hopes one day to rival.
The canal would pass through Lake Nicaragua, the largest in Central America, a concern for the environmental lobby as the lake is an important freshwater source for the country. The impact the work will have on poor communities is another worry for many Nicaraguans.
HKND engineer Dong Yunsong said that the canal would be between 230 m and 520 m wide and 27.6 m deep.
Environmental and social impact studies are due to finish later this year, and could yet recommend changes to the plan, but committee member Telemaco Talavera said work would begin in December.
The ambitious plan is to have construction finished by 2019 with an operational start date the following year.
Much criticism has been directed at the terms of the original concession agreement signed by Wang Jing and Nicaragua’s president Daniel Ortega last summer, with some claiming it amounts to little more than a land grab.
The government though claims that the completed canal will lift the country out of poverty. Minister Paul Oquist, a close advisor to Ortega, said that formal employment in the country “would double as a result of the canal and its multiplier effect”.
He continued, saying that projects surrounding the canal, such as the creation of two free-trade zones, two ports linked by a railway and an international airport would create “a formative change in job creation”.
However, opposition politicians remain deeply sceptical. Independent Liberal Party congressman Eliseo Nunez called the announcement of the route “a propaganda game, a media show to continue generating false hopes of future prosperity among Nicaraguans”.