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The Panama Canal's Expanding Impact

Posted June 24, 2015 11:00 AM by HUSH
Pathfinder Tags: canal Panama Suez supply chain

When the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, it was considered a marvel of engineering. Construction was at first started by the French in 1881, but they gave up 13 years later due to the immense technical challenges and 22,000 worker deaths (mostly Caribbean natives). So in 1903 the U.S. bought the canal property and equipment for $40 million from the French, and after negotiations with Columbia for a perpetual lease broke down, militarily supported a succession movement that ultimately became Panama.

The U.S. brought with them railroad engineers and valuable quantities of pesticides and water treatment technologies. As a result, malaria and yellow fever deaths were practically eliminated. And the engineers, specifically John Frank Stevens, sought ingenious building solutions to bridging the isthmus. The French and several other American engineers believed the solution was to cut a sea-level canal completely across Panama. However Stevens saw that flooding the lowlands of the Chagres River Valley would eliminate the need to excavate about 26 miles of channel, and locks on both sides would be used to elevate ships between sea level and lake level. The creation of Gatun Lake was a huge factor in the ultimate success of the canal and the United States' 99-year lease that was finally terminated in 1999.

Almost immediately Panamanians recognized that the canal needed more work. Container ships are getting larger and more important to international trade, and Panama Canal's primary competition is the Suez Canal in Egypt, which can accommodate larger ships. So in 2006 Panama began preparing for a canal expansion that will finally be completed in 2016. It's not a moment too late, as the Suez is also constructing an expansion, and China has just invested $50 billion into a Pacific-Atlantic canal across nearby Nicaragua.

The expansion will widen and deepen the existing access canals on both oceans, as well as build new canals leading to new, larger locks specifically for larger ships. Gatun Lake's shipping channels will also be widened and deepened, and the lake's water level will be raised by about 1.5 feet. These changes will allow the canal to accommodate ships with a 50% larger footprint, but will also double the cargo transit. Panama is also constructing new ports and facilities, as they hope to draw business in manufacturing and materials.

The effects of the Panamanian expansion are being felt thousands of miles away. To take advantage of the maximum ship specifications, a new class of container ship is being built. Panamax-class container vessels are the maximum size for the old canal, but New Panamax-class container ships will be among the first vessels using the deeper and wider canal routes. These ships can carry 13,000 containers, compared to the Panamax's 5,000 containers.

Additionally, numerous ports are expanding to accept New Panamaxes. The ports of New York and New Jersey, Baltimore and Norfolk have all deepened their vessel berths, and the New York and New Jersey port even spent $750 million raising a bridge by 64 feet to permit New Panamax access to inland ports. The Port of Liverpool in England has constructed a totally new port, Liverpool 2. Ports in Miami, Jacksonville, Savannah, Ga., Mobile, Ala., and Charleston, S.C., are all pending similar renovations.

While all this is happening, the engineering spectacle is easy overlooked. Perhaps something that was done for the first time 100 years ago isn't as impressive considering the immense mechanical and technological improvements. But when the entire spectrum of developments and innovations is considered, I'd argue that the spectacle is even bigger than the first time.

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#1

Re: The Panama Canal's Expanding Impact

06/24/2015 12:17 PM

The size and magnitude of these projects together the corresponding worldwide economic impacts are undeniably huge.. Yet unlike the olden days when new engineering feats were first realized, where theories were proven and tested and therefore known as engineering marvels! Present projects are now commonly labelled as merely expansions and modernization since mostly are based on an already proven engineering techniques!

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Re: The Panama Canal's Expanding Impact

06/25/2015 5:49 AM

The French gave up because the funding dried up, not because of the deaths. The program was basically a pyramid scheme that was exposed and failed to attract new investors.

But that's a minor point. As a history major, I find it hard to remain polite when i read, "Perhaps something that was done for the first time 100 years ago isn't as impressive considering the immense mechanical and technological improvements. But when the entire spectrum of developments and innovations is considered, I'd argue that the spectacle is even bigger than the first time."

You are confusing economic bean counting with balls. Sure, the effects on American port cities are expensive, and in today's political climate, hard to arrange. But in terms of human accomplishment in the face of nearly-overwhelming odds and unknowns, it just doesn't make sense to claim that the expansion of the Panama Canal is more "spectacular" then its building was a century ago. Do you have ANY experience of what it's like being on the razor's edge of risk? There are human reasons that the Eiffel Tower, the Suez Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Panama Canal held the world's attention while they were being built. The technical out-on-a-limb factor was huge, and real human beings would die as a result. If your idea of "spectacle" is merely economic, then focus on the housing bubble or the collapse of GM. But even these occurred when the major players were protected. Those old engineering projects carried risks of complete ruination, both financial and moral, especially in terms of the lives of those who died.

It's not just the lowly workers' lives, but also the engineers and bosses who sent them into "battle," and who realized that they were largely responsible for their deaths. Human lives matter. What is it in the educational system that would leave you with the impression that the dollars spent are more important in determining a "spectacle" than the lives and consciences at risk??? It's more of a spectacle when someone is willing to risk life, conscience, and honor than a merely inconvenient bankruptcy for the sake of a big project that benefits humankind. And few would argue that the expanders of the Panama Canal are even risking bankruptcy.

I am not a bleeding-heart, touchy-feely liberal. I have no problem with the valuing of the material and technical necessities of keeping a population alive and happy, but I am stunned by the lack of what most people would consider human values in your comment.

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Re: The Panama Canal's Expanding Impact

06/25/2015 6:55 PM

Ferndinand de Lessups was a French diplomat who ignored engineering recommendations and pushed for a sea level canal through Panama. The original recommendations were to construct the canal through Nicaragua not Panama. These were the recommendations of American and UK engineers. However, de Lessups fresh off the success of the building of the Suez canal decided he wanted a similar sea level canal through Panama and the hell with engineers. He was good at raising money and appealing to French pride. They underestimated the amount of material to remove by a long shot and ignored the plight of yellow fever and malaria on workers. He went bankrupt and the Americans took over the project. it was re-engineered and then eventually finished. It took some very strong intervention on the part of Doctor Gorgas who insisted on control of the mosquito. It was the work of Dr Reed in Havana that discovered that the mosquito was the cause of the diseases YF and malaria.

Gorgas was the hero of Panama who persisted in draining swamps, removing standing water, used netting and window screens and protected workers. Without the protection, the workers would never be found to complete the then new canal. Gorgas was the hero.

Strange as it seems the present day expansion is proceeding at the same time a new canal is being funded by China through the original recommended Nicaragua. It is further interesting that the new Panama Canal is being built by an Italian Spanish consortium and they too have ran out of money. Perhaps the US will complete the expansion as they did once before.

David McCullough has written a good history and interesting book, "The Path Between Two Seas". Excellent read.

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