Scathing Review Says Nicaraguan Canal Project Could Offer ‘Severe Threat To Water Quality’

Lake Nicaragua could be devastated by a new canal plan, scientists say. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ESTEBAN FELIX
Lake Nicaragua could be devastated by a new canal plan, scientists say. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ESTEBAN FELIX

Incomplete and implausible. Scientifically indefensible. Not realistic or feasible. Of insufficient quantity and quality.

These are some of the phrases used by a group of scientists to describe the environmental impact assessment (EIS) for a massive proposed canal through Nicaragua.

The independent panel of scientists had wide-ranging concerns about the validity of the EIS and the environmental safety of the canal, which would run from the Caribbean through Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific. The canal is being developed by the Hong Kong Nicaraguan Canal Development Group (HKND). HKND, which commissioned the EIS, began preliminary construction on the $50-billion project late last year.

“This is an unprecedented project,” Todd Crowl, director of Florida International University’s Southeastern Environmental Research Center and one of the reviewers of the EIS, told ThinkProgress. “I felt like I had an ethical responsibility to get the data out.”


Once it’s completed, the canal will serve to connect the Atlantic and Pacific for shipping lanes. Some critics have argued that the recently expanded Panama Canal is sufficient and that the northern version will not be economically viable.

This is an unprecedented project. I felt like I had an ethical responsibility to get the data out

Among the 15 different environmental issues the group identified, it was, of course, water — lack of water, quality of water, salination of water — that will bear the brunt of the impact. But the canal might also threaten rare, local wildlife — such as jaguars and spider monkeys — raise public health issues, and jeopardize the food chain. Practically no component of the environment was fully addressed by the EIS, the scientists found.

For example, the eastern coast of Nicaragua, which the canal would cut through, is a migratory corridor.

“You can’t put a bridge over it,” Crowl said. “There is no way to mitigate for stuff like that.” The firm responsible for the EIS, Environmental Resources Management, did not consider the corridor in its evaluation.


“There were a whole bunch of red flags,” Crowl said. “There is probably not enough water. If you couple that with droughts, which we’ve been having, and you couple that with climate change… that’s a really big issue.”

Nicaragua has been struggling with droughts in the past few years. As of earlier this month, much of the western part of the country was in a state of abnormal dryness.

Lake Nicaragua, as the name suggests, is a critical part of the country’s economic and environmental profile. Nearly 100 miles long and up to 45 miles across, the lake provides for food, transportation, and recreation in Nicaragua. It is one of the largest fresh water reservoirs in the Americas. The proposed canal will link the lake with two oceans, via a series of locks dredged out through existing rivers. Water is needed for the canal to work, so if water tables are down, the canal could stop functioning — or salt water from the oceans could infiltrate the system.

How the canal company plans to address these potential issues remains unknown. Beyond a project description document, which refers to the environment only 18 times over 46 pages (i.e.: “Treated effluent would meet international and Nicaragua standards and would be discharged in an environmentally acceptable manner”), information surrounding the proposed canal has been slim. In fact, the project has been widely criticized for its secrecy, with one spokesperson quitting in frustration. It’s unclear what, if any, environmental mitigation will be conducted, when the project will be fully underway, or what compensation displaced locals can expect.

Neither the Nicaraguan government nor the development company, HKND, wanted a review of the EIS, Crowl said. In fact, his is the only group that has been able to review the environmental components, and they didn’t have access to EIS chapters on social or economic impacts.

Crowl didn’t blame Environmental Resources Management for the insufficient study. The consultants were given only a year and a half to complete their work. According to guidelines by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, flood assessments should incorporate data taken over a number of years.


“The whole thing got truncated,” Crowl said. “There was no certainty at all in the data, as far as we can tell.”

The project description predicts the canal will be complete in 2020. But, for now, there is no certainty in that, either.