History And Development Of The Panama Canal Construction Essay

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Ever since the colonization of America started governments and trade organizations were looking for a faster water route from Europe to the west coast of America. Ideas for a canal in Panama started in the 16th century in Spain but they never worked it out. When the France in the 19th century finished the Suez Canal they tried to make a sea level canal in Panama, but after a few years with a high death rate due to mosquito spread diseases they stopped the construction, even though a lot of work was done. During the 19th century America industrialized and started a lot of transport from east to west. Because of the big distance and high transport costs by train the U.S. started the construction of the Panama Canal in 1904 to reduce the water route length (see image below). Now the mosquito as a source of diseases was known so with the proper measurements the death rate dropped significant and in 1914 the Panama Canal was operational.

With the construction of the Panama Canal things changed for the inhabitants of Panama. Independence of Panama from Columbia was a direct consequence from the U.S. wish to construct a canal. At first the Panama Canal was under control of the U.S. but after a revolt and political tension the Panamanians gain the control over the canal, including the full profits.

The Panama Canal brought big changes, financial income, job creation, international recognition, national pride. However, due to international competition, expansion of the canal is necessary. The research question therefore is:

Will the third set of locks bring more financial income, without compromising or damaging the nature and national pride and identity?

Panama Canal

The development until present and the present state of the technology within the chosen specific geographical area / project


The first time the idea of a canal trough Panama was suggested goes back to 1534, when the King of Spain was looking for a route through Panama to ease the ship traffic from Spain to Peru.

(Wikipedia, They Too Made America Great by Adolph Caso and Marion E. Welsh (1978))

Because of the strategic location and its small crossing area the Kingdom of Scotland attempted an overland trade rout in 1698, but failed due to the inhospitable conditions and abandoned in 1699. It took to 1855 before an overland link was built in the form of a railway. This link became an important piece of infrastructure, making it easier to transfer goods from the west coast of America to Europe, and largely determining the later canal route.

(Wikipedia, Darien Expedition (2007))

Despite the success of the railway, an all water route was still seen as the best solution. So the French, motivated by the success of the in 1869 finished Suez Canal, started on January the first of 1880 with the construction of a sea level canal without locks. They started their excavation without sufficient study of the region. The angle of the slopes where that steep that, for some periods, almost more rain induced landslides poured in the canal as had been removed. Adding to that mosquito spread diseases like malaria and yellow fever sickened and killed large numbers of employees, and since the role of the mosquito was not known yet their measures were inefficient. Due to these problems the French abandoned the project in 1893 even though a lot of work was done. There is estimated that about 22000 workers have died during the French construction.

(Wikipedia, The French Failure by Ralph E. Avery (1913) The Miraculous Fever-Tree by Fiammetta Rocco (2003) Read our history: The French Canal Construction by Panama Canal Authority (2007))

On January 22, 1903 the U.S. Secretary of State John M. Hay and dr. Tomas Herran of Colombia signed the Hay-Herran Treaty which would have granted the U.S. a lifelong lease from Colombia on the land proposed for the canal. But due to a misleading wording included in the article the U.S. needed to change it, but the Senate of Colombia did not ratify the changed treaty. In order to get the lifelong lease of the area the U.S. helped a revolt which made Panama independent on November 6, 1903. Panama's ambassador to the U.S. Phillip Bunau-Varilla signed the treaty which granted the U.S. the rights to build and control the Panama Canal. This treaty however, because Bunau-Varilla was a French citizen and therefore not authorized to sign treaties on behalf of Panama, led to a diplomatic issue between Panama and the U.S..

(Wikipedia, Hay-Herrán Treaty by U-s-history.com (1903, retrieved 2010) Avalon Project - Convention of a Ship Canal (1903))

In 1904 the construction started. The U.S. decided to build a canal with dams and locks instead of a massive sea-level canal like the French had tried in 1880. First step in constructing the canal was to rebuilt the Panama Railway and upgrade it for modern heavy-duty equipment. Also proper housing was built, this combined with good sanitation and anti-mosquito programs (the mosquito was identified as the cause) decreased the spread and therefore deaths caused by mosquito spread diseases.

Now having set the conditions to work (prepared infrastructure and control on diseases) the construction started in earnest. Even though the construction of locks and dams required less excavation than the sea level canal, still a lot of excavation had to be done. For this about 102 new railroad-mounted steam shovels were brought in from all over the world to replace the old French equipment. Since the railroad was constructed as close to canal as possible (sometimes reconstructed where it interfered with the canal work) fast deportation of big amounts of ground was possible. New techniques where used so dumping the materials on one of the 60 different dumping grounds went fast and without the help of manpower, all work was done by steam driven machines. Most of this new equipment was built in the U.S. by new extensive machine building companies. The former French machinery was minted into medals to honor the contribution of the workers who spent at least two years on the construction. On the front of the medal was Roosevelt's likeness with the name of the worker, and the worker's years of service and a picture of the Culebra Cut on the back.

In 1914 the canal was finished, two years sooner than the target date of 1916. The passage of the cargo ship SS Ancon on August 15, 1914 formally opened the canal. The investment in sanitation and the anti-mosquito program resulted in a low death toll during the American construction however, still about 5.600 workers died. Bringing the total death rate for building the canal to about 27.500.

(Wikipedia, The French Failure by Ralph E. Avery (1913) The Panama Canal by Lesley A. DuTemple (2002) The Roosevelt Medal by National Museum of American History (2008) Panama Canal: The Big Dig of Central America by Construction Equipment Guide (2006) Read our history: American Canal Construction by Panama Canal Authority (ACP) (2007) A History of the Panama Canal: French and American Construction Efforts by ACP (2007))

In the 1930s it was clear that the water supply would be an issue for the canal. In order to stay operational at all time the Madden Dam was built across the Chagres River above Gatun Lake. This dam created Madden Lake (later Alajuela Lake) which is used as extra water storage for the canal. In 1939 the construction of a new set of locks began to carry the larger warships which the U.S. was building. But after the World War 2 started the project was cancelled even though significant work was carried out.

After the war there was more tension between the U.S. and Panama about the control of the canal and the surrounding zone. After riots where both Panamanians and U.S. soldiers died in 1964, negotiations started to shift the control to Panama in 1974. This resulted in the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, signed in 1977. This stated that the Panamanians had free control of the canal as long as Panama signed a treaty guaranteeing the permanent neutrality of the canal. This led to full Panamanian control effective on December 31, 1999, and the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) assumed command of the waterway.

Current issues


As the world shipping is increasing, it is important for the canal to retain its market share. However, because there are more and more ships being build that are too big for the canal (so called post-Panamax ships), it is hard to keep their market share. It is expected that by 2011, 37 % of the world's container ships will be too large for the present canal. Also is estimated that by 2012 the maximum sustainable capacity of the present canal will be reached. Close to 50% of the transiting vessels are already using the full width of the locks.

(Wikipedia, Relevant Information on the Third Set of Locks Project by ACP)


Since the biggest growth in Panama Canal usage comes from U.S. imports from China there are two big competitors to the Panama Canal, the U.S. intermodal system and the Suez Canal. The U.S. intermodal system uses other forms of transportation to get cargo from west to east (rail and truck) and the Suez Canal offers another route from China to the east coast of the U.S.

Another competitor could be the Northwest Passage in the future. This route is not open jet due to ice, but with global warming this could open for bigger periods of time. Still this route needs significant investment in escort vessels and staging ports. Canadian commercial marine transport industry estimates that this route will not be viable as an alternative to the Panama Canal for the next 10 to 20 years.

(Wikipedia, Shipping industry complains about PanCanal toll hikes by Eric Jackson (2007) Nortwest Passage redux by Levon Sevunts (2005))

Efficiency and maintenance

When the control of the Panama Canal was taken over by the APC fears arise that the efficiency and maintenance would suffer. However, by working with and developing the methods used by the U.S. canal operations are improving under Panamanian control. The Canal Water Time (CWT), the time it takes a vessel to go from one side to the other, remained between 20 and 30 hours. Also the amount of accidents didn't change significant, varying around 10 to 30 accidents a year.

(Wikipedia, ACP 2005 Annual Report Panama Canal Authority Announces Fiscal Year 2008 Metrics (2008) Panama Canal Authority Announces Fiscal Year 2008 Metrics (2009) New York Port Hums Again, With Asian Trade (New York Times) ACP 2009 Annual Report Panama Canal Traffic - Fiscal Years 2002 - 2004 Panama Canal Traffic - Fiscal Years 2006 - 2008 Transfer heavy on symbolism, light on change by Steve Nettleton (1999) Modernization & Improvements by ACP The Press Association: Panama flooding displaces thousands (2010))

The Canal Today


The canal nowadays consists of two lanes, each with its own set of locks, multiple improved and artificial channels and artificial lakes. The layout of the canal as seen by a ship passing from the Pacific end to the Atlantic is as follows:

From the buoyed entrance channel in the Gulf of Panama (Pacific side), ships travel 13.2 km up the channel to the Miraflores locks, passing under the Bridge of the Americas.

The two-stage Miraflores lock system, including the approach wall, is 1.7 km long, with a total lift of 16.5 meters at mid-tide.

The artificial Miraflores Lake is the next stage, 1.7 km long, and 16.5 meters above sea level.

The single-stage Pedro Miguel lock, which is 1.4 km long, is the last part of the ascent with a lift of 9.5 meters up to the main level of the canal.

The Gaillard (Culebra) Cut slices 12.6 km through the continental divide at an altitude of 26 meters, and passes under the Centennial Bridge.

The Chagres River (Río Chagres), a natural waterway enhanced by the damming of Lake Gatún, runs west about 8.5 km, merging into Lake Gatun.

Gatun Lake, an artificial lake formed by the building of the Gatun Dam, carries vessels 24.2 km across the isthmus.

The Gatún locks, a three-stage flight of locks 1.9 km long, drop ships back down to sea level.

A 3.2 km channel forms the approach to the locks from the Atlantic side.

Limón Bay (Bahía Limón), a huge natural harbor, provides an anchorage for some ships awaiting passage, and runs 8.7 km to the outer breakwater.

This gives the canal a total length of 77.1 km.

(Wikipedia, Historical Map & Chart Project, (2007))

Lock size

The maximum length of vessels passing through the canal is 294.13 meters, maximum width 32.31 meters and a maximum draft of 12.04 meters.

(Wikipedia, The Panama Canal (2007) New Panamax publication by ACP (2006))

Third set of locks

To face the problems given before, the ACP proposed a project (a third set of locks) to double the capacity of the canal by 2014, so more and bigger ships can pass. On April 24, 2006 the Panamanian president Martin Torrijos presented the plan to the citizens of Panama. In a national referendum they voted in favor of the project on October 22, 2006 with 76.8% of the votes.

The construction contains two locks, one at the Atlantic side and one at the Pacific side. Studies showed that the best option is to build two similar three level locks. Three levels are chosen because this is the best option regarding the investment cost, maintenance, water utilization and environmental impact. And making the locks similar gives big execution advantages, and so reducing project costs and execution time. For the gates there is chosen for rolling doors, unlike the existing gates. Existing locks of the size of the new locks in Panama all use rolling doors (Ijmuiden, Berendrecht, and Zandvliet among others). To make access to the locks possible new channels have to be excavated and existing channels have to be widened and deepened to meet the new Panamax requirements.

When the new locks are operational they will use more water from the Gatun Lake. If too much water is used this could affect the ecosystem of the lake. To counteract this water saving basins will be applied. These basins can store water from the lock, the three water saving basins applied have a water saving rate of 60 %. Three basins are chosen because this is the best ratio between saving rate and investment costs.

The new Panamax is, based on the new lock dimensions of 427 m length, 55 m width and an 18.3 m draft, set to 366 m length, 49 m width and a 15 m draft. These new measures are already taken into account in the design of new ships. Despite these bigger locks there still are some ULCC's (ultra large crude carrier) too big for the canal.

The construction of the third set of locks started on September 3, 2007 and is planned to be operational between 2014 and 2015. The costs of the project are expected to be around 15 to 25 billion US dollars, this including design, administrative, construction, testing, environmental mitigation, and commissioning costs.

(www.pancanal.com Proposal for the Expansion of the Panama Canal, Third Set of Locks Project)

(Wikipedia, Proposal for the Expansion of the Panama Canal by the Panama Canal Authority Panama to Vote on Canal Expansion Oct. 22 by The Washington Post)

The impacts of the technology on society, both positive and negative, and both current impacts and possible future impacts.

Below are the impacts during construction phase stated.

Impacts of high significance


Increase in landslide risk

Increase in soil erosion

Impacts of medium significance


Increase in noise and vibration levels

Deterioration of water quality

Deterioration of air quality


Alteration of aquatic resources in Miraflores Lake

Alteration of marine coastal ecosystems

Loss of vegetative cover

Loss of land habitats

Alteration of aquatic resources in Gatun Lake

Historical-Cultural Elements

Impact on known historical and archaeological sites

Below are the impacts during operation phase stated.

Medium significance

Physical elements

Deterioration of air quality

Biological Elements

Alteration of marine coastal ecosystems

All these impacts are investigated by the Panamanian authorities and the ACP. The reports gave the following conclusions.

The Referendum on the Expansion Project in 2006 showed that the population is positive on the project. A great contribution to this is the Citizen Participation Plan, introduced to reckon with the different interest groups (communities, organizations, and institutions) in the Socio-economic Study Area.

During the entire process of the project the Equator Principles and the Performance Standard on Social and Environmental Sustainability of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) are followed (and will be followed), which contributes to the protection of the environment. One aspect of that is the water quality of the Gatun Lake. Studies showed that due to the three level locks system the additional set of locks will not harm the quality of the tropical freshwater lakes. For the forest being cut an area twice as large will be reforest.

Even though the project is developed in the ACP exclusive use areas, still there are some structures and houses in the area not owned by the ACP (nine houses and 57 structures of a different type on the banks of Gatun Lake, four semidetached houses in the former Gatun village, and six constructions in the village of Cocoli).

Due to the increased capacity of the canal bigger and more vessels can pass and so the competitiveness of the route in the world maritime transportation will increase.

All these conclusions (and obviously many more) are included in an Environmental Management Plan. So as long as the prevention, mitigation, monitoring, and compensation measures identified in the Environmental Management Plan are applied the project is socially and environmentally feasible.

So the answer to the research question will be:

Yes, the third set of locks will bring more financial income, without compromising or damaging the nature and national pride and identity, as long as the Environmental Management Plan is followed.

(Environmental Impact Study (EIS) www.pancanal.com)