Portrait of the Panama Canal: Celebrating Its History and Expansion

Portrait of the Panama Canal: Celebrating Its History and Expansion

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781943328673
Publisher: Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company
Publication date: 11/15/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 96
Sales rank: 340,268
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 10.70(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author


William Friar lives in San Francisco, CA.

GEORGE R. GOETHALS holds the E. Claiborne Robins Distinguished Professorship in Leadership Studies at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond. A Fellow of the American Psychological Society and other professional groups, Goethals is the coauthor of numerous journal articles.

Read an Excerpt

Panama’s answer to the question of how to stay viable in the face of all this competition has been the most ambitious engineering project on the isthmus since the Canal was first built: the building of a third, much larger set of locks alongside the existing ones.

This was an exceptionally bold—and expensive—plan. The idea was to build absolutely gargantuan lock chambers capable of handling “post-PANAMAX”–size ships. It would be a third “lane” for the Canal that would parallel and dwarf the existing lock complexes.

The original lock chambers are 1000 feet long by 110 feet wide. They can handle ships loaded with up to 5,000 standard 20-foot shipping containers.

The new locks are 1,400 feet long by 180 feet wide. The biggest vessels which can go through these locks, dubbed New Panamax ships, can carry up to 13,000 containers.

The cost of the project was nearly as staggering: an estimated $5.25 billion, a nail-bitingly large sum for a middle-income country which in 2014 had a GDP of $46.2 billion.

The project also required digging a new, nearly four-mile-long channel on the Pacific side of the isthmus, allowing the giant ships to bypass the old Miraflores Locks, which open right onto the Pacific Ocean. Existing navigational channels had to be deepened through dredging. And the freshwater supply feeding the Canal had to be increased enough to raise the level of Gatun Lake by nearly eighteen inches to accommodate these colossal, heavy ships. The extra water was also needed to supply the new chambers.

The system for raising and lowering ships in the new chambers is impressive, if arguably not as simple and elegant a solution as that used in the original lock chambers.

Like the original locks, the new ones use no pumps to raise and lower ships, relying instead on gravity to fill and empty the lock chambers. To conserve water, the locks’ water system was designed to reuse 60 percent of the water used in every transit. Alongside each of the new lock chambers is a series of three water basins, arranged in tiers. Each of these basins is the same length as the lock chamber it parallels, and is nearly 230 feet wide and about 18 feet deep.

When a ship is lowered during a lockage, water flows successively into each water basin tier and into the next-lower lock chamber until the water level equalizes. The water thus recaptured can be used for the next lockage. The process is reversed for ships which are being raised. This system reduces the amount of water that is lost to the sea. The new design aims to use 7 percent less water than the original, much smaller locks.

The lock gates are a different design as well. Where the original gates have two leaves which open and close like French doors, the new gates use just one leaf, which rolls in and out straight across the lock chamber, like a sliding door.

The new gates were made in Italy and shipped on giant barges to Panama. Each gate is approximately 190 feet long and 30 feet thick. The heaviest ones weigh 4,200 tons.

The original locks raised and lowered ships in stages at lock complexes located at three points along the Canal—Miraflores at the Pacific entrance, Cristobal on the Atlantic entrance, and Pedro Miguel in between. There are only two new lock complexes: one on the Pacific side and one on the Atlantic side.

Controversy dogged the project from the moment it was conceived. For a start, critics pointed out that even the existing Canal can run short of freshwater during a protracted dry season or unusually dry rainy season. This can force the Canal to limit the size of ships allowed to transit, as the lake level gets too low for the heaviest ships. Even with the expansion of the water supply, would there be enough water to supply three sets of locks?

Others worried about the environmental impact of such a massive construction project, particularly at a time when Panama’s ecosystems were already under huge pressure from deforestation and development.

Still others questioned whether the project was needed at all. Some analysts claimed that the trans-isthmian route had peaked, and the case for increased capacity depended too heavily on a volume of trade between the Far East and the US East Coast that could not be counted on to last.

There were also accusations of corruption in the awarding of contracts, which some claimed went to contractors who were not competent to perform the work or had not submitted realistic bids.

A particular concern was the quality of the concrete used in the new chambers. While the concrete in the original locks hast held up for more than 100 years so far, the walls of new chambers sprang leaks from the moment they were filled. Tests performed on the concrete found it to be riddled with air pockets. At the time of writing, this problem had not been resolved.

As if all this weren’t enough, work stoppages, clashes with contractors over money, a strike, and ongoing labor disputes pushed the expected completion date far past its original deadline.

It will be years before it becomes clear if Panama’s gamble has paid off. But many far beyond the isthmus are betting it will: sea ports, particularly on the East Coast of the US, have been deepening their own channels in anticipation of the massive ship traffic they expect to come their way.

So what of the future? Even as the third locks were being built, the ACP was already talking about the possibility of a fourth, even bigger set of locks. These would be capable of handling ships weighed down with 18,000 containers. And some still bring up the age-old dream of a sea-level canal at Panama.

It appears the Panama Canal dream is not over yet.

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