Monday, August 18, 2014

Panama Canal at 100

One summer in the early 1960s, our family was visiting the Kansas relatives.  My dad's cousin who worked for Boeing in Wichita and I were having an excited conversation about the space race.  Cousin knew a lot about the hardware being manufactured for the newly announced race to the moon including a lot that wasn't being made by Boeing.  My grandfather and two of his brothers listened to us with bemused looks.  Finally, one of those great uncles announced with some authority, "Going to the moon is just a stunt.  At best, we'll get to see some moon rocks up close.  But even if we do make it to the moon, the achievement will be trivial compared to the building of the Panama Canal."

The Canal opened in 1914 while my father was born in 1916.  It was the accomplishment that so excited my grandfather and his brothers when they were young men.  The Canal was to them what the moon race was to me.  And so they set out to give evidence for why the moon shot would NEVER equal the joining of the Atlantic and Pacific.  They talked about its effects on trade and the organization of USA's navy.  But mostly, they wanted to talk about how USA had successfully completed a project that the French had failed at—miserably.  The French were arguably the world's best canal builders and their engineering was globally famous.  But according to my uncles, they had failed because they didn't know how to properly organize very large projects—like the transcontinental railroads.

What the Americans had done, they argued, was turn the canal project over to the best of the railroad engineers.  The railroad guys promptly started by laying track.  Someone had done the calculations and discovered the project was mostly about moving a large amount of dirt and trains were the way to move it.  Then they decided that such a project was going to require a skilled workforce so the next thing they built was quality housing to keep them well-fed and essentially content.  And most importantly, they launched a serious attack on the diseases that had killed so many of the French construction forces.  As my uncle Karl said, "You get the basics right and the rest is easy."

And that, folks, is how USA once approached major challenges.  Of all the damage caused by the de-industrialization of this nation, the destruction of that can-do swagger is easily the worst.  Yes, humanity currently faces a HUGE challenge.  We have gotten very comfortable with the benefits of fire.  Rebuilding the global infrastructure to do without fire will be exceedingly difficult.  Yet in the back of my mind, I can hear my great uncles chuckling, "Is it possible? Yes? Then what are you bitching about?  Get to work!"

Panama Canal turns 100, celebrations marred by doubts

hg/ipj (AP, dpa) 15.08.2014

The 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal's opening has exposed doubts among economists over the nation's ability to fully profit from an expansion of the waterway. Competitors have long thrown down the gauntlet.

The construction of the 77-kilometer (48-mile) Panama Canal a century ago meant a revolution for international trade because it greatly reduced travel time between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

The channel eliminated the need for ships to go around the wild, southern tip of South America.

A hundred years on, an expensive $5.25-billion (3.92-billion-euro) expansion of the canal is under way which has been marred by numerous interruptions over cost overruns and strikes.

The enlargement will give the canal wider locks with mechanical gates which will reduce congestion and enable it to accommodate far bigger vessels.

Competition doesn't sleep

Panama Canal Administrator Jorge Quijano acknowledged he would have liked to finish the expansion in time for Friday's centennial. "But we knew from the beginning that a project as complex as this wouldn't necessarily be done on time," he told reporters. The target completion date is late 2015.

Technical delays have not been the only worry. Many economists and government officials in Panama have been gravely concerned about competition lurking just around the corner.

Panama Canal expands for the future

Egypt is embarking on an expansion of the Suez Canal, and a Chinese firm was recently awarded a contract to build a waterway through Nicaragua - the very path originally favored through the central American isthmus by engineers in the 19th century.

For the time being, the threat to Panama failing to reap the full benefits of its current canal expansion may be just on paper. But the country is taking the challenge seriously and has started talking about yet another, fourth set of locks to maintain dominance. more

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