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October 23, 2006 8:52 am

Panama Canal set to transform shipping

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The Panama Canal is set to undergo the most significant changes in its 92-year history after the people of Panama voted overwhelmingly in a referendum on Sunday in favour of a $5.25bn project to expand the canal’s capacity.

The project will transform the economics of certain shipping routes by making it possible for ships carrying up to12,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of containers to reach the US east coast by the shortest route from Asia.

At present, the largest container ships which can use the canal between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans can carry at most 5,000 TEUs.

The project will also allow far more annual passages of ships through the 80-km canal between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. More than 90 per cent of the annual capacity of the existing canal is already used.

Ricaurte Vásquez, Morales, chairman of the board of directors of the state-run Panama Canal Authority (ACP), said Panamanians had made history by voting 78 per cent yes in Sunday’s referendum on the project.

“We are honoured by their trust and humbled by the responsibility in front of us,” he said.

It is hoped that the expansion project could be completed in time for the centenary of the canal’s opening in 2014.

The centrepiece of the expansion project will be the construction of two new enormous flights of locks, one near the Pacific and one near the Atlantic ends of the canal.

Measuring 427m by 55m, the new locks will be able to accommodate far larger ships than the canal’s existing two lanes of locks, which can take only ships up to 295m by 33m.

Around half the container ships currently under construction are too large for the existing canal, but nearly all would fit the new locks.

The massive construction project will be a significant test for the ACP, although it is generally regarded as having done a good job of running the canal since it took over responsibility for its operation in 1999 from the US, which built the waterway.

Alberto Alemán Zubieta, ACP chief executive, responded to the concerns raised during the referendum campaign by some opponents of expansion, by saying that expansion would be a “principles-driven project”.

“We are committed to transparency, efficiency and environmental sustainability,” he said. “This will guide our vision and direction.”

The ACP commissioned hundreds of consultants’ reports before finally adopting the present version of the expansion plan. Among the most controversial issues have been the project’s environmental sustainability and its funding.

The new locks will now use water-saving technology, so that water used for each passage will be stored and recycled, rather than flushed out to sea, as happens with the present locks.

The project will also be paid for almost entirely by increased tolls for ships, to avoid damaging Panama’s public finances.

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