Building the Panama Canal

Matthew Parker, on the centenary of the completion of the Panama Canal, describes the gruelling challenges faced by those competing to succeed in the project to join the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, from the 16th century to the present day.

Roosevelt's rough diggers, from Puck, heading to work on the Panama Canal. The president's aggression in Panama divided US opinionIt was supposed to have a glorious historical symmetry. August 2014, exactly a hundred years after the triumphant completion of the Panama Canal, should have seen the opening of the new $5.5bn expansion, one of the biggest engineering projects currently underway anywhere in the world. But the Panama Canal has broken men and reputations before. Amid strikes, huge cost overruns and rumours that the main construction consortium was in financial difficulty, the completion date slipped first to October, then to March 2015; now it is ‘mid 2016’. Each day of delay reportedly costs the canal company nearly a million dollars in lost revenue.

Construction of the massive new locks began in 2009. There was enormous optimism. Vessels carrying up to 12,000 containers – more than twice the current Panamax limit – would be able to cross the isthmus, hugely benefiting world trade and bringing vast revenue for the Panamanian government. But critics smelled corruption and doubted the financial viability of the Spanish-led consortium, which won the main lock-construction contract by underbidding its nearest rival by $1bn. Bechtel, the US engineering giant, which had expected to get the work, sneered that the price bid would not even cover the cost of the concrete required. 

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