Río San Juan canal plan dumped, Managua says

Nicaraguan development officials have decided not to use the Río San Juan for a canal across the isthmus.

The decision appears to mean that no canal will be built, opening the door for Costa Rica to install its own dry canal and use the exiting rail system to compete with the 99-year-old canal in Panamá.

The Nicaraguan canal, estimated to cost $30 billion, is a pet project of President Daniel Ortega.

Orlando Gómez Zamora, a vice foreign minister, wrote this week to foreign diplomats in Managua to tell them that the Río San Juan canal project is off.  Costa Rica’s foreign ministry released the text of the letter, which was drafted Monday.

The letter said that work by the HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. Ltd. has caused the Autoridad del Gran Canal de Nicaragua to shelve the project. The letter cited unspecified technical reasons. The decision is to use another route that is located north of the autonomous region of the Atlantic, the letter said. The detailed route was not given.

The Autoridad is a new government agency. The HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. Ltd. is a firm owned by Chinese businessman Wang Jing, who was expected to put up much of the money.

The suggestion of a northern route does not seem feasible. The only possible waterway is the Río Coco that is the border for much of its 750 kilometers between Honduras and Nicaragua. But to call the river meandering is an understatement. Plus it is heavily silted. Less than a quarter of the river is navigable, according to online sources.

More likely is a falling out among investors or the realization that the cost of the Río San Juan project was much more than the estimate.

A canal connecting the Caribbean with the Pacific at San Juan del Sur has been a dream since colonial days. Nicaragua owns the entire river. The international boundary with Costa Rica is the south bank. The river found use in the mid-19th century as a waterway transporting gold seekers to and from California. At least one expat in northern Costa Rica has made the river trip from near the mouth of the Caribbean upriver to Lake Nicaragua in a small boat. The proposed canal project would have meant building a short stretch with locks between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific. There also would have had to be locks along the river course at some of the rapids. The Río San Juan is big enough to accommodate ocean going ships.

Another possibility is that the canal project was kayoed by global warming. Warmer temperatures are melting Arctic ice and the northern sea can be navigated at least four months of the year now connecting Europe and Asia. The season can be lengthened somewhat by using ice breaker escorts.

A study released this week by the University of Massachusetts Amherst showed that 2.2 to 3.6 million years ago with estimated atmospheric carbon dioxide similar to today’s levels, the Arctic was very warm with no ice sheets. The conclusion was reached by studying sediment cores from an ice-covered lake, the university said.

The international research team was quoted as saying “this could tell us where we are going in the near future. In other words, the Earth system response to small changes in carbon dioxide is bigger than suggested by earlier models.”

The Costa Rican government has contracted with a Dutch firm, APM Terminals, to build a $1 billion container port at Moín. The project is controversial, and unionized state employees who work at the existing docks want to halt the project. If the new container facility is built, it will be one key features in a possible dry canal using the nation’s railway system to move cargo from one ocean to the other.

The political problems are bigger than the technical ones, and Costa Rican officials have tried not to step on the toes of their colleagues in Panamá, where a $3 billion expansion of the canal there is taking place to accommodate modern shipping.

Ships traveling the Panama Canal can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in tolls.

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