One Hundred Years Later, Work Begins on New Locks for the Canal

By Dialogo
August 27, 2009

Panama City, 24 August (EFE).- One hundred years after the first cement blocks were put in place for the Panama Canal, in 1909, the interoceanic canal, which has been traversed by 983,000 vessels over the course of a century, is getting ready for new locks that can be used by the new ships of the twenty-first century. Although no ceremony has been planned, tomorrow will be the first of the 1,883 days (about five years and two months) that the international consortium Grupo Unidos por el Canal (GUPC) will have to build the locks for the new channel, which will enable the passage of larger vessels than those that existed at the beginning of the last century. GUPC, headed by the Spanish firm Sacyr-Vallehermoso and also including the Italian firm Impregilo, the Belgian firm Jan de Nul, and the Panamanian firm Constructora Urbana, has not yet set a date to break ground on the project, which it has agreed to carry out for 3.118 billion dollars. The opening of the construction period coincides with the hundredth anniversary of the date the first cement for the current locks was poured, on 24 August 1909, less than six years after Panamanian independence, for which the Canal project was decisive. A canal was first proposed in 1532, only nineteen years after the discovery of the Pacific Ocean by Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s expedition, when Charles V ordered topographical studies for the construction of a canal that would cross the Isthmus of Panama and streamline the shipment of treasure from Peru to Spain. Due to the complexity and financial cost of the project, however, it remained for many years only a recurring proposal, until it was again seriously pursued toward the end of the nineteenth century. It was the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had already built the Suez Canal in Egypt between 1859 and 1869, who set out to do the same in the Isthmus of Panama in 1880. However, his insistence on a sea-level canal, like the Suez Canal, as well as tropical diseases and administrative inefficiency, caused the enterprise to end in one of the largest financial scandals of the late nineteenth century. The United States, one of the countries that would benefit most from a canal, bought the rights from Lesseps, and when confronted with the difficulty of obtaining from Colombia the concession to build the canal through the Colombian province of Panama, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt supported the Panamanian independence movement. Panama declared its independence from Colombia on 3 November 1903 and found itself forced to sign a draconian treaty with the United States, granting Washington the canal concession in perpetuity and sovereignty over an eight-kilometer-wide strip on either side and thereby setting the stage for a lengthy struggle to recover the ceded rights. After numerous diplomatic efforts without results, on 7 September 1977, the Panamanian head of government, Gen. Omar Torrijos, and the U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, signed a treaty for the gradual handover of the canal to the Panamanians, along with guarantees of free transit and permanent neutrality. Thus, on 31 December 1999 Panama took full control of this strategic infrastructure, the construction of which the United States had restarted in 1904 and, with the efforts of around 75,000 workers from around the world and the investment of 400 million dollars at the time, had completed in ten years. Now, less than a decade after the handover, Panama has been faced since 2007 with a project with a total cost of around 5.25 billion dollars in order to refit the canal for the passage of larger vessels known as “Post-Panamax.” These ships, with almost three times the cargo capacity of so-called “Panamax” ships, are calculated to already account for around a third of the volume carried on container ships, the Canal’s principal business. The new channel, with a three-stage lock at each end of the Canal and a system of lateral reservoirs to conserve water, will raise the vessels twenty-six meters - equivalent to an eight-story building - to allow them to cross Gatún Lake, in the center of the isthmus, before descending to the ocean on the other side. The Panama Canal Authority has established financial incentives and penalties to speed up construction, with the aim of having the expansion completed for the centennial of the opening of the Canal on 15 August 2014.