Bridging Oceans: The Panama Canal

There’s a saying among the people of Panama: “Bridge of the world, heart of the universe.”  

9NEWS WEB EXTRA. 06/26/16. None

KUSA - There’s a saying among the people of Panama: “Bridge of the world, heart of the universe.”

It’s a fitting description for a small country, with so much riding on it – or in this case, sailing across it.

This is a place where land gave way to water, by Bridging Oceans: The Panama Canal.

The first century of the Panama Canal

If the Americas had a waistline, its belt would be cinched in Panama.

“It’s a beautiful, tropical country,” Oliver Kaplan, associate director of the Korbel Latin America Center at the University of Denver said.

Panama lies at the narrowest section of the continent; the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are separated by a mere 50 miles. Those 50 miles would spawn dreams of connecting the two oceans – a goal that would remain elusive for centuries.

In Panama’s Old Town, there is a monument to the man credited with first broaching the idea of building a canal, King Carlos V of Spain. He died in 1558.

The canal would not become a reality there for another 356 years.

“It was built by immigrants,” Conrad Grant, a Panamanian who was born in the Canal Zone said.

The immigrants who built the canal were mostly from the West Indies.

Back in the late 1800s, the French gave it a go first. They tried to cut a channel straight through the country to create a canal at sea level. Yet, disease and less-than-ideal conditions killed more than 20,000 workers— half of the people working on it. France nearly went bankrupt from the effort and eventually gave up.

Then, at the dawn of the 20th century, the U.S. signed a treaty with Panama for control of the Canal Zone.

“While living on the Canal Zone, it wasn’t for visitors, it was a military installation,” Grant said.

In creating the canal, the Americans had a different idea. Instead of cutting a channel straight through Panama and its mountainous terrain, they figured it would be easier to float ships over the mountains.
If the idea sounded far-fetched, the task would be equally enormous.

Here’s how it would work: a dam would be built at one of Panama’s major rivers, in order to create a massive artificial lake in the middle of the country. Ships would then sail towards it at sea level and enter a set of locks. The locks would fill with water and raise the ship up to the higher elevation of the manmade lake. The ship would then enter the lake and sail through. Once the ship crossed the lake and reached the other side, it would go into another set of canal locks, where it would be lowered back down to sea level and sail off. It was an engineering plan well ahead of its time.

“As an engineer, it’s very exciting to see what they were able to do 100 years ago,” Mario Finis, Senior Vice President of MWH Global said.

When construction began in 1904, mosquito-borne diseases like yellow fever and malaria were rampant. To prevent the tens of thousands of worker deaths the French effort saw, Americans instituted a “sanitation program,” which included draining the surrounding swamps, to cut down on the number of mosquitoes.

In the end, it made a huge difference: about 5,000 people died in the building the canal – a fraction of the number the French lost.

When it finally opened in 1914, President Theodore Roosevelt was there, taking much of the credit for pushing through the idea of the Canal. Americans would remain in control of the Canal Zone for 85 more years, creating a complicated relationship between the United States and Panama.

“Historically, there’s been some tension in the relationship over the canal,” Kaplan said. “In 1977, Jimmy Carter, President Carter, began the process of turning the Canal Zone back to Panama.”

That finally happened on December 31, 1999, when the United States handed control of the Canal Zone over to Panama.

At they entered the dawn of the 21st century, Panamanians would need to think long and hard about the future of a Canal that helped define their country in the 20th century.

“It gives the Panamanian people a sense of pride,” Marianela Dengo de Obaldia, Manager of Strategic Relations for the Panama Canal said. “Panamanians tried to recover the canal for like 85 years. So, many generations got involved.”

One of the people who became involved over the generations was Javier Pimentel.

“I was very little and I came to visit,” Pimentel said. “So, I said, ‘One day, I’ll be working there.”

He works for the Panama Canal Authority at the Miraflores Locks, on Pacific side of the canal. For the past ten years, he’s been a liaison for the more than 3,000 visitors from around the world, who come there every day to see massive ships carefully maneuver through the narrow locks.

“They ask me about the functioning, how important is the Panama Canal, how many workers do we have at the Panama Canal? If the Panama Canal is working 24-7? We say, ‘yes, the Panama Canal is working around the clock.’ Per day, we handle 35 to 40 vessels.” Pimentel said. “How many vessels do we handle per year? More than 13,000 vessels. How much money does the Canal make per day? About $8-$10 million per day. So, the Canal is very important.”

And what’s important to the Canal?


Lots of rain.

Downpours are a daily occurrence for most of the year in Panama. The rainy season runs from May through November. All of that water is critical, though. Not only does it help maintain the levels of Lake Gatun -- the manmade lake at the heart of the canal -- but tens of millions of gallons of fresh water are also used to fill the locks, each time a ship comes through.

Much of the water used in the Canal starts in Soberania, one of the rainforests in Panama. The water that falls there eventually makes its way to Lake Gatun, where it’s used not just by the Canal, but by the 1.5 million people of Panama City.

For Javier Pimentel, the occasional rain storm that interrupts his work day is a welcomed part of the day.

“That’s part of the canal. The rain is part of the canal,” he said. “That’s the only way to replenish the water used in the Panama Canal.”

It’s successfully functioned this way for more than a 100 years, but changes outside of the Canal Authority’s control, threatened to undermine this waterway.

Colorado – to the rescue.

9NEWS at 4 p.m. 6/21/16. None

The Panama Canal in the new millennium

In a growing world, the Panama Canal appeared to be shrinking.

Over the decades, the ships that made their way through it became bigger and bigger. The average cargo ship holds about 5,000 containers. However, new ships, called post-Panamax, dwarf those average ones and are able to carry 13,000 containers. Those giant ships are much too large to get through the century-old canal.

What to do?

That would be up to Panama, which now controlled the canal, after 85 years of Americans at the helm.

“The people of Panama had to vote on it. They had to decide if it was worth it,” said Marianela Dengo de Obaldia, Manager of Strategic Relations for the Panama Canal.

Back in 2006, Panamanians headed to the polls to vote on a national referendum, on whether or not the canal should be expanded. They overwhelmingly voted in favor of it.

“Seventy-eight percent of the voters said yes,” Dengo de Obaldia said. “So, we received this mandate from the Panamanian people to move forward with the project.”

It’s hard to overestimate just how important the canal is to the psyche of the Panamanian people.

“[The] canal is a source of pride because it’s one of the eight wonders of the world,” Panamanian Conrad Grant said.

The canal is what most people around the world think of when they think of this small country.

“When I talk with people, they say, ‘Oh, Panama? The Panama Canal!’ That’s the first thing they remember,” Pimentel said.

Part tourist attraction, all money-maker: each ship that comes through there pays tens upon tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege. In exchange, they save time – about 24 days— and money -- about three-quarters of a million dollars in fuel -- by avoiding the more than 10,000 mile trip around South America.

The canal generates between $8- and $10-million a day, so they needed to keep it running during the expansion. To ensure that would happen, the canal authority decided to build a totally new, larger set of locks, running parallel to the original ones.

“This will more than double the capacity of the Panama Canal,” said Mario Finis, MWH Global Senior Vice President. “So, it will have a huge impact on the ability to increase global trade.”

To help make these new locks a reality, the Canal Authority turned to an American company, in an unlikely location: Colorado.

If there is a geologic opposite to Panama -- a rainy, tropical place, surrounded by two of the world’s oceans -- that opposite might very well be Colorado, a landlocked state with a high desert climate.

Yet, it is in Colorado that one of the greatest maritime projects of the 20th century would be getting a 21st century upgrade from engineering firm MWH Global.

“MWH is the lead designer for the project for the canal locks and the expansion. We are teamed with two partners, but we’re the lead designer for it, working for the construction contractor that’s actually building,” Finis said. “So, we’re responsible for all the design features related to the new locks and the expansion of the canal and the entrances on both the Pacific and the Atlantic sides.”

In their high-rise offices in downtown Denver, MWH engineers used computers to design and create models of what the new locks would look like and how they would work.

“It was a lot of long hours, a lot of calculations and analysis, drawings – just producing a lot of stuff on very tight deadlines,” MWH Senior Geotechnical Engineer Wonnie Kim said.

There is nothing quite like seeing the conditions on the ground, something Kim quickly realized.

“I think it’s the biggest project I’ve ever worked on,” she said.

Kim worked on the canal expansion for six years, including designing the dam that leads to the lock structure. Things got complicated, though. The geology on the ground in Panama was not exactly what they thought it would be.

“The Panama Canal has some of the most challenging conditions for a project. We have several active fault crossings across the dams and the lock structures, which is just something you don’t come across on any project, really,” Kim said. “We used a lot of the natural materials there and the geology there is just ridiculously complex. And so, there were just hundreds of different combinations of what was there and what was designed around it.”

And that’s not all: the larger, post-Panamax ships also require a deeper draft. That means Gatun Lake, the manmade lake created 100 years ago, would need to be deeper in order for the larger ships to get across Panama.

“The draft of the new ships requires 60 feet clearance – so they’re making sure we have that depth through the whole channel,” said MWH Global Design Manager John Duque.

Duque lived in Panama for years, overseeing the how the company’s design would be implemented. That included building a new landmass between the new locks and the original ones for the canal.

“Nothing of this was here,” Duque said.

An area called the Culebra Cut – the Snake Cut – also needed to be widened. That way, two of the larger post-Panamax ships would be able to pass by one another as they crossed the manmade lake.

“You can see this is the deepest crossing in the canal,” Duque said. “This is where the high mountains were and most of the excavation was performed.”

Duque took us to that area, through the rainforest, across an old, one-way, wooden bridge.

“The bridge is a very old one. There is only one lane for vehicles and the other side, the train passes,” he said, as the car carefully traveled over the wooden planks. “I find it quite interesting because the planks are still wood and it looks like it’s in a precarious condition. Gives a lot of character to the place.”

It’s a place where global commerce and eco-tourism intersect. Nearby resorts mingle among the rivers and waterways that feed the canal.

“It’s beautiful,” Duque said. “You can see a lot of animals, nature – beautiful place.”

Back at the new set of locks, massive gates hold back Lake Gatun, as they control the water within these locks, which raise and lower ships as they go through.

The new gates are massive -- about 100 feet tall. Each was custom built in Italy and then shipped over to Panama. They then had to make their way through the original canal – from the Atlantic side over to the Pacific side. The largest one weighs a whopping 8.4 million pounds.

“Everything you see here is redundant. From the gates, we have two gates to come into every chamber,” said Gabriel Llort, Deputy Design Manager for Electromechanical Works. “If anything goes bad, we can switch over and we can continue.”

The gates slide across the locks, which is a change from the swinging gates at the original 100-year-old canal. That isn’t the only thing that’s changed in how the canal operates.

“This is basically a big hydrolic laboratory,” Llort said.

Remember all the millions of gallons of fresh water used each time a ship goes through the old canal? At the new one, there’s something new: water saving basins. They are a set of massive reservoirs, which store tens of millions of gallons of water – water that’s recycled every time a ship comes through, instead of that fresh water flowing out to sea.

“They’re saving a lot of water just by being able to retain that water in the basin,” MWH engineer Wonnie Kim said. “Engineering-wise, it’s very tricky, because you have to deal with water coming in and coming out.”

The new basins mean the canal uses 70-percent less water than the original canal.

“So, it handles a much larger ship, with many more cargo units on it and also, it actually uses less water than the existing locks,” said MWH Senior Vice President Mario Finis.

That’s important because just like Denver, Panama City is growing. You can see it in the skyline. That means more people need more freshwater, which makes a more water-efficient canal a must, as this lush country looks to the future.

9NEWS at 4 p.m. 06/22/16. None

The future of Panama and its canal

Where the Pacific Ocean meets old seawalls sits Casco Viejo— the Old Town. It is the birthplace of Panama City, an architectural jewel first built in 1673. It is a place with a long history that is now looking to the future.

“Since the Americans left, Panama is booming -- because of American dollars," Panamanian Conrad Grant said.

It’s booming because of American dollars, literally. It is the official currency there and one of the residual effects of the United States controlling the Panama Canal for 85 years. Now, though, Panama controls the canal and, in many ways, its destiny.

“It’s a beautiful, tropical country, but it’s also a major business hub in Latin America and, in fact, features one of the fastest-growing economies in the region,” said Oliver Kaplan, associate director of the Korbel Latin America Center at DU.

It has not been without controversy, though. The country was thrust into the spotlight recently once again because of the Panama Papers. Those are documents leaked from a large Panama City law firm, which specialized in helping wealthy clients around the world hide their money and avoid taxes. Among their clients were an estimated 2,400 Americans.

“There were a lot of disclosures about people keeping their money in hidden, secret bank accounts around the world, and using shell companies,” Kaplan said.

Despite that, the country of Panama tried to distance itself from the scandal.

“While it happened in Panama, it doesn’t directly implicate Panama, as much as it implicates other investors around the world,” Kaplan said. “And so, the Panamanian response to this has been to show the strong way they’ve been managing their economy and the governance.”

For some Panamanians, all that glitters in their skyline doesn’t always translate down to them.

“What do I see? I don’t see anything,” said Balu, a Panamanian artist, who, like many of the indigenous people there, goes by just one name.

Balu creates art by painting scenes of Panama’s wildlife on feathers.

“This is Panama -- because I represent Panama— our lifestyle, our culture,” he said. “And every time people stop by, I explain to them our culture and what it is like in Panama.”

Balu said that while he supports the canal improvements, he wishes the government would also put an effort into improving the lives of people who live outside of the city.

“For example, everything you see here is pretty. But if you head into the interior, to the indigenous cultures, the people who live in the countryside, those who are in need, have they seen any of that money from the Canal?” Balu said. “I’m not against what they’re doing. I’m simply against some of the realities of life that we have to deal with.”

The Panama Canal Authority set aside 5-billion dollars for the expansion, but contractor disputes and additional labor costs will likely cause that number to rise.

“It has been a very intensive job,” Marianela Dengo de Obaldia, Manager of Strategic Relations for the Panama Canal said . “Many ups and downs, as you may have known.”

Also looming over them is the threat of competition. There is the potential for another canal to cut through Central America. This one would go through Nicaragua. It is an idea the United States also considered more than 100 years ago, before it went ahead with the Panama Canal.

“Historically, there was originally a plan to run a canal through Nicaragua, going through Lake Nicaragua, connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic,” Kaplan said. “That plan has re-emerged under President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, where they have looked for Chinese bidders to build an alternate route through Nicaragua.”

Despite the buzz, a Nicaraguan Canal project seems to be stuck on pause. Environmental and financial concerns have raised serious questions about whether it could even be built. For now, that leaves the Panama Canal as the only option.

“It’s 100-percent good because it’s Panama’s source of income,” Grant said. “The canal produces a lot of money daily.”

How much it will make from the expansion is still not clear. For those who worked on the project, though, finishing what they started, dominated their lives.

“It’s what it takes actually – and a lot of commitment from people,” John Duque, MWH Global Design Manager. “It’s very hard work said.”

“I hope we can at least do as well as the engineers did 100 years ago,” Finis said.

“It feels good that we are able to see, finally see, this project in operation,” Gabriel Llort, Deputy Design Manager for Electromechanical Works said.

The Panama Canal Authority held a lottery among their clients, to pick the first ship that would sail through the new, expanded locks. The ship that won the privilege is from China.

It’s the first of many that will eventually traverse the expanded waterway, as Panama guides the Canal through its next 100 years.


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