Canal would destroy Nicaraguan habitats, scientists argue

Nicaragua plans to create a canal that's expected to rival that of Panama, which would run through this lake. (Credit: AP Photo/Esteban Felix/File)

Plans by the Nicaraguan government and a Hong Kong-based company to cut Nicaragua in half to make way for an interoceanic canal would devastate the region socially, economically and ecologically, according to one Nicaraguan scientist leading the opposition to the project.

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Jorge Huete-Pérez (Credit: ASU)

“A lot of people think this is not going to happen, that this project is so stupid, it doesn’t make any sense, that it’s not going to happen,” Jorge Huete-Pérez said this week in Seattle. Yet he and other concerned scientists aren’t taking any chances. Huete-Pérez is the senior vice president of the University of Central America and the founder of the Nicaraguan Academy of the Sciences.

The Nicaraguan government argues that the project is necessary to boost the country’s economy. Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in the Americas.

The proposed 171-mile canal would bisect the country, running directly through Lake Nicaragua. Known locally as Lake Cocibolca, Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America (5095 square miles) and the region’s main freshwater reservoir.

(Credit: http://cronkite.asu.edu/buffett/nicaragua/)

(Credit: http://cronkite.asu.edu/buffett/nicaragua/)

In an editorial published in March in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, Huete-Pérez and 20 co-authors, laid out their objections to the fast-tracking of the canal project. The scientists fear irreparable damage to Lake Nicaragua.

Other areas of concern include the likely impacts on the region’s fragile ecosystems (Nicaragua currently represents about 7 percent of the world’s biodiversity), as well as the displacement of more than a hundred thousand people, including those from protected indigenous territories.

The sole environmental and social impact study to date was undertaken by U.K.-based consultancy, Environmental Resource Management, and funded by the Chinese company, Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. Limited, that was awarded a concession in 2013 to proceed with the canal project before any assessments had been done.

After months of pressuring the government to release the report, Huete-Pérez convened an international panel of experts to review the 11,000 page environmental and social impact assessment that the company finally turned over. In the summary of findings the expert panel found “no basis for concluding that this project is beneficial overall.” It also noted that the report failed to meet international standards for such assessments, and the panelists recommended that the project be halted until such time as a proper assessment could be done.

Professor Mike Brett, who teaches environmental engineering at University of Washington, described the environmental and social impact report as a “pseudo-scientific smokescreen.” In an interview with Humanosphere, Brett said the way the environmental study was conducted was as an important lesson for engineering students on what not to do.

“They created the illusion that they did a good study,” Brett said. “You can’t mitigate the impacts of a project if you don’t know what they are.”

To Brett, Huete-Pérez’s seminar brings up the important questions about the role of scientists and engineers in society. “Jorge has devoted his career to asking questions that very powerful people don’t want to hear,” he said.

 

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Andie Long

Andie is a writer and PR/marketing consultant, based in Seattle. She focuses on inclusive solutions to poverty and climate change. She's also a certified game designer. Follow her on Twitter @andielong