Lake Nicaragua is the largest reservoir of drinking water in Central America, not to mention an important source of both irrigation water and eco-tourism revenue for one of the poorest nations in the region. For these reasons alone, it would be reasonable to assume that dredging a canal through it would only be done with extreme caution and with careful assessment of the possible environmental and economic interests. 

Not so, say a growing number of conservationists, scientists, farmers and indigenous rights activists. And with construction on a 173-mile, $50 billion inter-ocean Nicaraguan canal set to begin before the end of December, many fear that time may be running out to stop this mega-project. 

As reported in a story over at NPR, plans for a canal cutting through Nicaragua and connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans have been around since before the Panama Canal was completed in 1914. Due to a combination of engineering challenges, threats from volcanic activity and projected costs — and competition from the Panama Canal — those plans have never come to fruition. With global shipping continuing to grow, however, the Nicaraguan government recently granted rights to a Chinese-based private company, the HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company (operating as the HKND Group), to construct the canal, which will also include a rail line, an oil pipeline and deep water shipping terminals at either end. HKND will retain rights to operate the canal for the next 100 years.

On the one hand, the country's government claims the mega-project could create hundreds of thousands of jobs and kickstart astronomical growth in this cash-poor nation. On the other hand, it could cause ecological disaster and social unrest. As detailed in a recent opinion piece on Nature.com, there have been no independent environmental assessment reports of the proposed canal, and no requirement to make the assessments undertaken by the HKND Group available to the Nicaraguan public, say the authors Axel Meyer, professor of zoology and evolutionary biology at the University of Konstanz, Germany, and Jorge A. Huete-Pérez, director of the Centre for Molecular Biology at the Universidad Cenroamericana, Managua, Nicaragua, and the president of the Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences.

Here are just some of the reasons why Meyer and Huete-Pérez are so concerned: 

In our view, this canal could create an environmental disaster in Nicaragua and beyond. The excavation of hundreds of kilometres from coast to coast, traversing Lake Nicaragua, the largest drinking-water reservoir in the region, will destroy around 400,000 hectares of rain forests and wetlands. The accompanying development could imperil surrounding ecosystems. Some 240 kilometres north of the most likely route of the canal lies the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve — 2 million hectares of tropical forest that is the last refuge of many disappearing species. Less than 115 kilometres to the south is the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, with more than 318,000 hectares of tropical dry forest. Worse still, the probable canal route cuts through the northern sector of the Cerro Silva Natural Reserve.
They also warn that the canal could lead to saltwater seepage into Lake Nicaragua itself, not to mention the introduction of invasive species carried in by international cargo carriers. 

It's not just conservationists who are worried. Nina Lakhani of the Daily Beast reports that concerns over land rights are uniting both ranchers previously loyal to the right-wing Contras and small-holder indigenous farmers who have, until now, supported the left-wing president and former Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega. In fact, both sides are so angry about the lack of public oversight on the project that they are threatening to take up arms against the government, potentially reigniting the conflicts that led to civil war in the 1980s. 

As has often been the case in Central America, the internal conflict over the canal has an international dimension, too. While the HKND Group is a privately company led by billionaire lawyer Wang Jing, there have long been rumors that the project is being directly supported by the Chinese government as a means to gain geopolitical influence in Central America. Exactly how much influence the project will buy, however, remains to be seen. 

With an expanded Panama Canal due to start operating in 2015, many experts question whether shipping projections being used to justify the construction have been overstated. And with oil prices plummeting of late, and long-term uncertainty the future of fossil fuels in a warming climate, questions will also be asked about the profitability of the oil pipeline too.

When all is said and done, it looks like the canal will begin construction in the near future. But with the Guardian reporting that work will take at least five years to complete, and with angry protests flaring up on the #CanalNI hashtag on Twitter, it seems likely there will be considerable debate and conflict over the wisdom of this project for some time to come.  

Related on MNN: