The Panama canal is being made wider. An explosive ceremony marked the start of a 3.8 billion euro project, which will allow the world’s increasingly huge cargo ships to take the short cut between the Atlantic and the Pacific. They are also putting in a couple of bigger locks, doubling the number of ships which will be able to pass through the 80 km canal at any one time. Former US President Jimmy Carter was there to see the work get underway, along with Panama’s president Martin Torrijos. Supporters of the project say the work is vital to maintain the share of world trade using the canal – currently, about 5 per cent of all goods, by volume, uses the waterway.
It was the president’s father, Omar Torrijos, who signed a treaty in 1977 with Jimmy Carter, which led to America handing over the channel in 1999. The US and China, are the biggest users of the Panama Canal. But its facilities are aging fast, and advances in shipbuilding have already led to so-called Cape Class vessels – ships which are too big for the canal, and have to take the long way round -via Cape Horn.
Within the next few years, Panama would have had to start turning even more ships away. This new work is planned to be ready by 2014, the hundredth anniversary of the canal’s opening. The Panama Canal was a marvel of its time when it opened to shipping.
But the human cost of building it was immense. More than 25,000 workers died in the mosquito infested countryside – most of them from illness.