Few tourist attractions can be said to be things that have truly, objectively, changed the world. This is one of them. From the moment the Panama Canal opened on August 15, 1914, the world was forever changed. It was made smaller, more accessible, easier to traverse. Goods could reach new markets, or the same markets in drastically shorter time. As my speedboat skims the surface of the Canal, racing past Panamanian jungle landscapes highlighted with huge cranes and dredging equipment, darting by ships the size of city blocks, I am in awe of the power of human ingenuity, and aghast in horror at the ramifications of that power.
Passing a huge vessel on the Canal.
Building the Canal was, without a doubt, one of the most ambitious engineering projects of its time, requiring more than thirty years (the French project began in 1881) and nearly 50,000 workers at a given time – more than 10,000 perished during construction, largely of tropical diseases. It meant damming rivers to create a huge lake, digging through mountains, and fighting back against the rain and deluge of sediment always threatening to clog up any newly dug site. Completed, it stretches 51 miles from the Caribbean Sea of the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific in Panama Bay, gains and loses 26 meters of elevation through locks (three on each side), linking the world’s two largest oceans and saving ships an average of 22 days of sailing time (in the present day – it was even more at completion).
The Bridge of the Americas marks the Canal entrance on the Pacific side.
The importance of Panama to global trade has been apparent since the first Spanish explorers landing on the Atlantic coast heard from natives that another ocean was only a week’s walk away. As a colony, the isthmus was the transport point for vast wealth plundered from the Inca and others, with nearly two thirds of the route by the navigable Chagres River, which today provides the majority of water into the Canal. Plans for an interoceanic canal took many forms over the years – even as early as the 18th century, ranging from a sea-level canal through Darien on the Colombia border to a US-led proposal of Nicaragua as a more suitable site. However, the French, coming off the successful 1869 opening of the Suez Canal, dominated international conventions on the matter, and led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, Panama was selected.
After a series of failures and funding issues, the French abandoned the project, which was picked up by the United States in 1904, before being opened ten years later. The Canal was officially a US military zone until 1999, when Panama took over control as a result of a treaty signed during the Carter administration. In 2016, a third “lane” opened, having passed by popular Panamanian referendum, allowing larger ships to transit the Canal, a “neo-Panamax,” and there is talk of further expansion. After all, more ships (and larger ships) means more revenue, as cost to transit is determined by number of containers, or passengers, or weight depending on type of ship. So far, the record for a single transit is $1.1 million!
The neo-Panamax locks at the Agua Clara Visitors Center on the Atlantic side.
For those interested in this history, the Panama Canal Museum in Panama City’s casco antiguo – old city – is a must-visit, although keep in mind it is $10 and cash-only. While only about 15% of the exhibits are translated into English, the museum tells the story of the isthmus as a transit hub pre-Canal, and continues with both the political and practical sides of the construction process. You’ll find out interesting facts, like that with the opening of the third lane in 2016, Canal revenue is now the third largest income stream for Panama, behind tourism and shopping (specifically the Colon free trade zone). You’ll also be able to see photos and artifacts from the associated periods, like these original French bonds sold to raise money for construction.
An original bond for the Canal!
Back on the Canal, my tour guide Enrique explains some of the challenges of the fact that this is a fresh-water canal, filled by rain. He tells us that the majority of the water comes from the Chagres River, and that the depth of Gatun Lake – the large man-made lake that covers nearly half of the route – can change by more than six meters over the course of the year. Keeping the Canal open requires so much water (the new locks in lane three are able to recycle about 60%, but even that is a large user of water), but seasonal rains also bring soil runoff that keep dredgers constantly at work just to keep the Canal deep enough.
Our route on the Panama Canal and some of its side-waterways takes us to a place called Monkey Island, where Enrique passes each of us a single grape. Before long, he spots a couple of capuchin monkeys, and they eagerly come down to the boat, taking our grapes before bounding off. They are awesome, as are the tamarins who nervously approach when the larger primates leave.
Seeing these amazing creatures gets me thinking about some of the other effects of the Canal. While it has certainly been an economic boon to both Panama and the world, what of the environmental impact? Here we have a large man-made waterway that was inserted down the middle of an incredibly diverse rainforest habitat. And while Panama has pledged reforestation in an amount double to land lost due to any future construction or enlargement, that can’t really make up for this habitat destruction, let alone the pollution caused by some of the largest vessels in the world sailing down it. Panama advertises a fairly carbon-neutral footprint for the Canal, but that is only in terms of the costs of operation, not of original construction, and certainly not of the footprint of the ships themselves. What of these costs?
If the Panama Canal were not there, would these ships still be sailing, adding weeks onto voyages and polluting more, or would they instead not exist, and goods either transported more regionally rather than globally or moved by other means? And is the benefit gained by having access at cheaper prices of goods from all over the world worth the environmental costs? For that matter, how does one even put dollar figures on those?
Ignore the splashing. We were moving pretty fast and I was in the back of the boat.
At day’s end, one thing is certain: the Panama Canal has significantly altered the world in which we live. It is undeniably one of the most economically important projects ever undertaken, though at tremendous cost in terms of human life and environmental destruction. As we return to Panama City, I marvel at a place built on the revenue provided by global trade via a man-made waterway.
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