Environmental fears for Lake Nicaragua add to skepticism over 'biggest engineering project in human history'

The project is the brainchild of President Daniel Ortega, who says it will lift his people out of poverty

With a blast of fanfare loud enough to drown out a background buzz of deep scepticism, Nicaragua has declared that it is moving forward with plans to build a waterway linking the Pacific to the Caribbean. The finished project would compete with the Panama Canal, which itself is undergoing a grand expansion.

Billed as the biggest engineering project in human history, the new canal would stretch 173 miles: starting at the mouth of the river Brito on the Pacific side, bisecting Lake Nicaragua near the border with Costa Rica and heading eastwards via the Tule and Punta Gordas rivers as far as Bluefields Bay on the Caribbean.

With a $40 billion price tag, the project is the brainchild of President Daniel Ortega, the one-time Marxist guerrilla turned laissez-faire leader, who says it will lift his people out of poverty, and Wang Jing - described by the New Yorker magazine as “an obscure Chinese tycoon” - who is a lawyer, not an engineer.

A special canal committee created by Mr Ortega said on Monday that it had settled on the route for the canal after considering six different options. Members said they expected ground to be broken this December with a highly ambitious 2019 completion date. (It took 10 years to build the existing Panama Canal, which is one third of the length of the Nicaraguan route.)

However obstacles remain. There is growing concern that by essentially handing over huge swathes of his country to an untested Chinese entrepreneur, Mr Ortega may have violated sovereignty clauses in the constitution.

Opposition may also intensify from environmentalists who fear for the future of Lake Nicaragua and all of the territory that would be torn up to make way for the sea lane.

Congressman Eliseo Nunez of the opposition Independent Liberal Party called this week’s announcement part of “a propaganda game” by Mr Ortega. “A media show to continue generating false hopes of future prosperity among Nicaraguans”.

But Mr Ortega dominates the political scene in his country and there has been little mistaking his determination to get the canal project under way, regardless of the questions about his choice of partner in Mr Wang.

“This is a project that will bring well-being, prosperity, and happiness to the Nicaraguan people,” he said at a ceremony unveiling his dream in Managua just over a year ago.

Nicaragua Canal Development Investment chairman Wang Jing speaks during a discussion group with students from the National Engineering University in Managua Nicaragua Canal Development Investment chairman Wang Jing speaks during a discussion group with students from the National Engineering University in Managua The somewhat reclusive Mr Wang is said to have built his fortune in the Chinese telecoms market. To further his courtship of Mr Ortega, he founded a company in Hong Kong and called it the HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co Ltd (HKND Group).

Officials of the company have claimed that the project would give employment to about 50,000 in Nicaragua. In addition to the canal itself, ports and a new airport would be built.

"This project is going to be the biggest built in the history of humanity. It will be an enormous help to the Nicaraguan people and for the world in general, because world trade will require it, we are sure of this," Wang told students at the Managua University of Engineering.

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