Science Magazine: Canal Proposal Divides Nicaragua

Prestigious journal article finds a divided scientific community with regard to the proposed canal mega-project in Nicaragua

By Cinthia Membreño

One group of scientists views the Canal as a blessing, while others warn of an environmental catastrophe.
One group of scientists views the Canal as a blessing, while others warn of an environmental catastrophe.

HAVANA TIMES – The debate over the environmental viability of the Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal has divided the scientific community into two camps.

Those who participated in an international forum organized by the Academy of Sciences (ACN) last November are convinced that the megaproject will trigger an ecological catastrophe for Nicaragua. But there’s also a smaller group of researchers who consider it a blessing for the second poorest nation in the Americas. According to them, the real value of the initiative lies in its reforestation plans.

Among the scientists belonging to the latter group is Jeffrey McCrary. McCrary, who holds a doctorate in biology, has lived in Nicaragua for over three decades. In the article published in the prestigious magazine Science he explains that after carrying out a study of the freshwater species that live along the canal route, he has concluded that this megaproject is the only way to confront the legal anarchy and the ongoing destruction from erosion in the country’s Eastern zone. The scientist’s study was done at the request of ERM, a British global sustainability consulting firm, and his findings were included in the firm’s environmental impact study presented last June.

Other researchers view the 50 billion dollar project as an opportunity to collect environmental data that couldn’t be financed any other way, and whose tab will now be picked up by the Hong Kong based Nicaragua Canal Development consortium (HKND Group). “We should help them and offer our support so that the study is as complete as possible and the environmental impact of the canal is kept to a minimum” was the justification of Ricardo Rueda, botanist, from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in Leon (UNAN-Leon).

McCrary, along with Rueda, told journalist Lizzie Wade, author of the Science piece, that they regretted the positions taken by Nicaraguan scientists such as Jorge Huete-Perez, vice president of the Academy of Sciences, and by other opponents of the Grand Canal who have isolated themselves from the conversation by adopting a “confrontational position”. Rueda felt that the scientists should “look for ways to help, so that more and more is known” about the natural resources of the country and better ways of protecting them during the canal’s construction.”

An environmental disaster

Jorge Huete-Perez, director of the Molecular Biology Center of the UCA (Central American University) has published several editorials in magazines such as Science and Nature denouncing the project’s consequences. He rejects the option of cooperating with the project as a way to bring progress to the country. “It’s always easier to take the side of the powerful. Aligning yourself with the vulnerable takes more courage,” he states.

In his writings, Huete maintains that the megaproject will increase the salinity of Lake Cocibolca, the largest fresh water body in Central America, as well as causing the forced resettlement of the indigenous communities in the east of the country. The scientist regards ERMs 11,000 page environmental impact study as inadequate.

In addition to Huete, a number of other professionals refute the idea that the canal will save Nicaragua. In the eyes of Dr. Katherine Vammen, who represents Nicaragua at the Water Program of the InterAmerican Network of Academies of Sciences (IANAS), “it’s irresponsible” to commit to constructing a canal with so little scientific information. “They’re leaving too many doubts pending,” she asserts.

Vammen is concerned about the possible significance of the 17-meter deep excavation that HKND would have to carry out in Lake Nicaragua to allow the passage of deep-draft vessels. ERM calculates that this involves the removal of 715 million meters of sediment. “It would be the largest damp sand excavation that has ever been done,” she indicates.

In the same vein, Vammen explains that very little is known about the Bathymetry [study of underwater depth] of Lake Nicaragua and the composition of its sediments, leaving serious reservations about the safety and viability of the dredging. In her opinion, “These are essential aspects that you need to know about if you’re going to construct a canal”.

The journalist from Science magazine reports that the only sample of sediment that was analyzed during ERMs environmental impact study contained relatively high concentrations of heavy metals and other contaminants – including mercury, arsenic and pesticides that may have come from the rice fields along the eastern shore of the lake. “The dredging could release these elements and contaminate the water, making it impossible to drink or use for irrigation,” Lizzie Wade notes.

The article’s author warns of the probability that the lake sediments also contain nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, and that stirring them up could generate the proliferation of algae, poison the fish and destabilize the ecosystem. In addition, the composition of the lake would be transformed by the functioning of the locks, which would have to be raised and lowered to allow the boats to pass from one point to another. This could bring about an invasion of marine species and a menace for the plankton that live there. “The lake is a place where a lot could be lost,” affirms Gerald Urquhart, tropical ecologist from Michigan State University.

Threat of a natural catastrophe

The serious risk posed by volcano eruptions is another reason for concern among national scientists. Sergio Espinosa, a Nicaraguan geoscientist residing in Canada, affirms that this phenomenon causes landslides that in turn could generate tsunamis in the lakes, a catastrophe with the potential for destroying the locks and causing the canal to drain in the direction of the Pacific. The planned response of Daniel Ortega’s government and HKND to an unlikely but highly risky event of this nature could “make or break the canal” assures Julio Miranda, a Nicaraguan structural engineer who resides in San Jose, California.

Miranda notes that the ERM report doesn’t weigh the risks of a catastrophic earthquake. “The study used Chinese construction codes to evaluate the safety of the canal, instead of developing new standards to assure that a project as unique as this would continue to function before, during and after an earthquake.”

For his part, Jorge Cortes Nuñez, marine biologist for the University of Costa Rica, asserts that the canal would deposit sediments in both oceans, endangering the coral reefs. In addition, the chosen route would pose a menace to the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor created to safeguard the habitat of the jaguars and other large mammals.

“It’s the only option”

In the Science report, Norving Torres, director of Friends of the Upper San Juan River Foundation underline the fact that between 2002 and 2012, Nicaragua lost half of its forest cover, elevating the levels of erosion and run-off. Because of this, those who support the initiative awarded to the Chinese entrepreneur Wang Jing assure that the canal will save the country in every sense.

Manuel Coronel Kautz, head of the Grand Canal Authority, justifies the project, reminding us that Nicaragua “doesn’t have many opportunities for development…. We want to transform the lives of Nicaraguans, that’s what makes us revolutionaries. And no other option will have as great an impact as this one.”

Along these same lines, engineer Bill Wild – project advisor for HKND – promises that the structure and the economic development it brings will benefit conservation. “Personally, I believe that the canal is the only thing that will save the Nicaraguan environment. There’s nothing else,” he concludes.
*Cinthia Membreño is a Nicaraguan journalist. The article was orginally published in spanish by

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