Builders working on the Panama Canal expansion project said last week that the project is still expected to be completed by April 2016, despite the discovery of water leakage from fissures in one of the locks.


Two weeks ago, a spokeswoman for the Spanish construction group Sacyr, lead member of the Grupo Unidos Por el Canal (GUPC) consortium responsible for the expansion project, announced cracks were detected in one of the walls, allowing water to leak through. The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) further elaborated that the leak, which occurred in the concrete sill between the lower and middle chamber of the Canal’s expanded Pacific Locks, was the result of insufficient steel reinforcing which had been subjected to extreme stress from testing.


After exam of all the other sills in both lock complexes, GUPC stated that in addition to reinforcing the sill that presented the issue, they would also reinforce the first and second sill in the Cocoli Locks and the first three sills in the Atlantic-facing Agua Clara Locks as a preventative measure—even though these sills have not presented any issues.


The improvement to the 50-mile long waterway, which is used by 13,000 to 14,000 ships each year, has been hit by delays and budget overruns. The GUPC consortium, which also includes Italy’s Salini Impregilio, Belgium’s Jan de Nul and Panama’s Constructora Urbana, overran its initial $5.25 billion budget. That, in turn, lead to financial disputes with the Panama Canal Authority, and work stops.


Nonetheless, almost all of the work has been finished, and structural and systems tests are bringing “optimal results.” According to the GUPC, the 16 massive sliding gates of the new locks “are responding positively to all electromechanical tests.”


In other canal news, growing concerns about the environmental and social effects of Nicaragua’s proposed $50-billion transoceanic canal have prompted the government to postpone the start of construction until at least March, according to the commission overseeing the project. A project “groundbreaking” that was widely reported last December actually was only the start of an access road for heavy equipment.


Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment (HKND) claims that it will complete the 173-mile Nicaragua Canal project in 2019. The project is projected to cost $50 billion, and HKND says the canal will be able to accommodate ships of up to 23,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). That compares with the 13,000 TEUs the Panama Canal will be able to accommodate after its expansion.


The Nicaraguan government strongly supports the canal, and claims the project and side efforts—including a new airport and free-trade zone—will triple economic output over the first decade of operation and raise the country’s living standards. Chief among the opposition, are environmentalists and scientists, who say the project would put pristine wetlands and rainforests at risk, as well as Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest freshwater lake, which is in the pathway of the proposed canal.


The delay comes after consulting firm Environmental Resources Management (ERM) said several issues should be further researched before the project proceeds. Those issues include seismic risks to the locks and whether there is even sufficient water to fill the 175-mile canal.


The study, commissioned by HKND, also urges its client to conduct further consultations with indigenous communities along the canal’s pathway because the plans call for them to be displaced and relocated. It also questions whether Lake Nicaragua, a major source of a source of drinking water and recreation, can survive the dredging of its bottom.


Considering the magnitude of the Panama Canal expansion, it is only natural for delays and cost over runs to arise. However, the proposed Nicaraguan Canal has—since it was first announced—been met with opposition. Given the number of environmental concerns, and protests stemming from the proposed relocation of indigenous peoples, one must wonder if work will ever begin on the proposed canal.