Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 413 | Diciembre 2015



Interoceanic canal: “Stop that project!”

A few days before the United Nations COP-21 began in Paris, in which the countries must pledge to detain climate change if the planet is to remain habitable for other than cockroaches, Pope Francis said from the UN’s headquarters in Nairobi: “It would be sad, and I dare say even catastrophic, were particular interests to prevail over the common good and lead to manipulating information in order to protect their own plans and projects.” That’s exactly what Nicaragua’s government did by approving its interoceanic canal project, ignoring risks and threats that go against the common good. It also seems to be what those in COP-21 are doing.

Envío team

On November 5, in an event that excluded independent media, the Nicaraguan government announced its approval of the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) of the planned construction of an interoceanic canal through Nicaragua by the Hong Kong Nicaragua Development (HKND) Group, the conces¬sionaire. The ESIA was prepared by Environmental Resources Management (ERM), which had been contracted by HKND. Despite the many risks the study noted and the many gaps it either failed to or could not fill in the time provided, the government also issued an environmental permit to begin construction of the megaproject.

The ESIA was done in barely 17 months, clearly too little time to study in any depth all the critical impacts of a work that, if built, will be the largest earth-moving project and one of the largest engineering constructions ever attempted. The 12.7-million-word study was delivered in May to Nicaragua’s Ministry of the Environment, which never made it available to the public or even to Nicaragua’s scientific community, even though its information is of utmost importance for the whole country. Nor has the ministry made public the resolution by which it recently gave its endorsement. HKND posted the executive summary of the ESIA on its web page in English and Spanish about a month before its approval, and the complete study days after the government approved it.

The scientists did what the
government should have done

Nicaragua’s Academy of Sciences, which the government has never listened to much less consulted with respect to the canal project, began holding a series of forums soon after the canal law was passed and the contract signed with HKND in mid-2013. It invited government officials to both participate and attend, but none ever accepted.

One of ERM’s closing recommendations in the ESIA was precisely “obtain expert review,” warning that “this Project would be one of the largest civil works projects in the world, with segments being constructed in seismically active, remote, and/or high precipitation areas, rich in biodiversity and a critical source of fresh water for Central America [i.e. Lake Nicaragua, also called Cocibolca], where a project failure would have significant consequences, all of which combine to make the design and construction of this Project a significant engineering feat. For these reasons, ERM recommends that the Government of Nicaragua establish an international expert panel to review the engineering design and constructability of the Project, especially relative to seismic hazards, water management, and failure modes for all main structures to ensure the protection of public safety and Lago de Nicaragua.”

Ignoring this recommendation, the government sat on the ESIA for six months, consulting neither experts nor the population that will be affected, limiting itself to auditorium presentations to a total of some 3,000 people shortly before it was approved. As soon as the complete study was publicly available, Nicaragua’s Academy of Sciences rushed to do what ERM had recommended to the government, inviting 15 international experts to divvy up and analyze the study’s 16 chapters (contained in 5 of its 14 volumes, while the remaining 9 volumes are appendices). These experts then met in Managua with their national counterparts to share analyses of a project that, if executed, will transform our country in ways barely imaginable.

The invitation attracted scientists from different specialties, who in a show of solidarity paid their own way and charged no fees. They met on November 19 and 20 in the second such workshop held by the Jesuit Central American University (UCA) in Managua. The first one had been a year earlier, also in the university’s César Jerez Auditorium (see envío’s December 2014 issue).

“Healing Earth”:
An international Jesuit project

In his welcoming speech, UCA rector Father José Idiáquez announced that in July of this year authorities of the 31 Jesuit universities grouped in the Association of Universities Entrusted to the Society of Jesus in Latin America (AUSJAL), meeting in Managua, were given the mandate by its president, Father Fernando Fernández Font, to study Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” in all university departments. That mandate is part of a larger project called “Healing Earth,” inspired by the papal text, that the Jesuits have assumed in all their educational institutions around the world.

The project’s objective is to “involve students in a transforming education.” In 2011, even before the encyclical, the Society of Jesus had published a document titled “Healing a wounded world,” in which the superior general of the Order, Adolfo Nicolás, challenged all Jesuits to redouble their commitment to caring for the environment. Nothing more pertinent for the UCA, then, than to host a workshop to analyze a project that would sever Nicaragua in two, opening up a mega-wound.

Will the canal indeed
have a net positive impact?
Two of the workshop’s sessions were open to the public and two were split into three working groups (water and sediments, biodiversity, and economic and social impacts) where the international experts could discuss those aspects of the ESIA with their national counterparts. The government prohibited public university professors and students from attending the public sessions, although some disobeyed the order.

The underlying question throughout the workshop was: What underpins the government’s affirmation that the canal will have “a net positive impact?,” as this was the reason given for approving the ESIA and allowing HKND to interpret that approval as a definitive green light to initiate the canal construction work.

The national and international experts (engineers; ecologists; specialists in water, biodiversity and marine geology; biochemists; biologists; geomorphologists, environmental economists…) delved into the calculated “ambiguities and gaps” they said the 11,000 pages of the ESIA contained, demonstrating that the government’s justification is propagandistic, responds to political interests and has no scientific foundation. Moreover, they argued that neither the government’s endorsement nor HKND’s enthusiastic announcements are based on the ESIA, which to the contrary warns of major risks.

Seven more studies are needed

In the opening session, the president of Nicaragua’s Academy of Sciences, Manuel Ortega Hegg, made clear that finally making the complete ESIA available to the public on Internet “does not make up for the lack of transparency” that has characterized this project ever since Law 840 was approved in June 2013, granting HKND’s CEO Wang Jing the canal concession. “Now with the approval of the ESIA as well,” he said, “first the decision is taken and then what was decided is reported.”

The Academy president also pointed out a fundamental aspect: The ESIA lists seven important, complex and lengthy additional studies that must be done, among them a detailed seismic evaluation, mitigation measures to control salinization of Lake Cocibolca, profiles of the lake’s bathymetry and a national hydric analysis. Since none of the seven have been done, the government’s approval demonstrates an alarming lack of seriousness.

“They could leave it half-finished”

Nicaraguan scientist Pedro José Álvarez, head of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department of Rice University in Houston, Texas, and an expert in nanotechnology among other specialties, co-chaired the workshop. Referring to the meeting ERM organized in March of this year at Florida International University to present the preliminary findings of the ESIA it was already drafting, he said “We noted at the time it was a superficial preliminary text and we reiterate that now,” he said.

Álvarez repeated what he has been saying each time he visits Nicaragua and talks about the canal: “My fear is that they could start the work and leave it half-finished, disfiguring the country.” He pointed out that the ESIA also recognized that possibility and warned of the damage it would cause.

Throughout the workshop, discussing volume after volume, all scientists agreed that the ESIA was superficial and still preliminary, contained inadequate analyses, didn’t apply international standards, lacked indispensable quantitative data, was full of suppositions and descriptions in lieu of evaluations, and was based disproportionately on “desk work” rather than the needed field work.

Environmentally unsustainable
ergo financially unsustainable

It was Nicaraguan oceanographer Salvador Montenegro’s task to refer to the ESIA’s evaluation of Nicaragua’s Great Lake Cocibolca, America’s largest tropical lake. “It’s not any old puddle,” he began, to thus underscore the enormous value of this 8,000-square-kilometer natural treasure.

Among other things, he reminded us of the optimal uses the lake has or could have: providing purified drinking water for Nicaragua’s population and even selling it to neighboring countries; large-scale irrigation for Nicaragua’s fertile plains; fishing and other tourist uses. He criticized the ESIA for failing to recognize the canal’s annulling of these options as losses.

An expert in Cocibolca’ continuous and sometimes powerful wind-generated waves, which are one of the lake’s main characteristics given its shallowness, Montenegro pointed out that the ESIA evaluated this major challenge very superficially, only measuring wind velocity in two places on the lake and only for 5 seconds. He reiterated that the constant winds shift thousands of tons of sediment each day and could end up obstructing the massive underwater trench that will have to be opened for the canal. Given these peculiar characteristics of the lake, he posited that the canal’s environmental unsustainability will render it financially unsustainable.

Sediments: The ruin of the Great Lake

To open this nearly 168-mile-long, 30-meter-deep trench across the lake, the ESIA calculates that 715 million tons of sediment will have to be removed from the lake bottom. Katherine Vammen, a water science expert who analyzed what the ESIA has to say about this sediment, concluded that such a massive process will drastically and irreversibly affect the lake’s rich biodiversity and permanently endanger the quality of its water for human consumption, irrigation and other alternative uses.

She explained that while it is true that the Cocibolca basin has deteriorated over time due to the use of its lands (75% pasture, 8% agriculture and only 17% forests), the lake water is still apt for irrigation and drinking after affordable processing. Excavating such huge amounts of sediment, which include agro-toxins and all manner of organic and chemical waste that have settled to the bottom, will end all possibility of other uses than the passage of ships dedicated to world trade.

Official spokespeople for the canal, and President Ortega himself, have argued that Cocibolca is already deteriorated in order to justify giving it up to international transport. In this respect, environmental scientist Jaime Incer Barquero, who is the President’s adviser on environmental issues but is never consulted, told journalists in the workshop that “with the canal they want to apply the ‘law of Jonas’ to the lake: as it’s already messed up, let’s mess it up more!”

Biodiversity in danger

Nicaraguan molecular biologist and biochemist Jorge Huete analyzed the ESIA’s evaluation regarding biodiversity, noting that Costa Rica and Nicaragua are the countries with the greatest biodiversity in the Central American region and highlighting that little Nicaragua is home to between 7% and 10% of the planet’s biodiversity. He said the ESIA acknowledges that five national biodiversity blocs will be severely affected by the canal’s construction and 120,000 hectares of forest will be destroyed, 30% of them “of high natural quality.”

The ESIA demonstrates potentially huge impacts, he added, despite its deficiencies, which include taking insufficient marine samples, not studying the coral reefs or microscopic food networks that feed all the aquatic life, not adequately investigating Cocibolca’s rich fauna and not taking into account the impacts the canal would have on both commercial and small-scale fishing, the latter a mainstay of the Rama indigenous population whose recently demarcated territory would be split in two by the canal and one of its communities completely eradicated.

It might bring wealth for some,
but not development for all

Nicaraguan economist Adolfo Acevedo, who was asked to analyze the little the ESIA says about the canal’s social and economic impacts, also began his presentation with a grabber: “They tell us that something as large as the canal in a country as small as Nicaragua will have such an impact on development that the only price we’ll have to pay will be environmental.”

To demonstrate the reverse—that it would be a very high price for a very limited result, He showed data that prove how Panama’s economy was similar to Nicaragua’s, with high rates of poverty and backwardness, even after that canal had been functioning for half a century under the ownership of a foreign interest, as Nicaragua’s will be. Only starting in 2000, when the canal finally passed completely into Panamanian hands, did the country began to bring in several billion dollars a year. But even today, only the cities of Colón and Panama, at the two ends of the canal, have an improved economy, while the poverty in the rest of the country is similar to what a majority of Nicaraguans suffer today.

Acevedo said the ESIA’s chapter on the canal’s economic impact “lacks foundation.” Even ERM recognizes that gap, justifying it on the grounds of not being given access to data to improve it. Acevedo found that a little hard to believe as it could have found enough on the Central Bank of Nicaragua’s web page to do far more than it did.

With Power Point charts and figures, Acevedo explained that the 25,000 jobs the ESIA says the canal construction will generate for Nicaraguans barely represent 0.7% of the economically active population. Based on other calculations, he added that even once the canal is operating and the tourist resorts, commercial free trade zones and other subprojects associated with it have also come on line, the employment they’ll provide will still only cover 5% of the country’s economically active population.

How much water do we have?

Among the studies ERM listed as needing to be done before starting the canal construction, both Acevedo and the other scientists emphasized the national water analysis, which would tell us what volume of fresh water our country really has. They all seconded the ESIA’s acknowledgement of the need for such a study before proceeding to be sure there will be a constant supply of enough water for the canal to function. They also added with concern: “Only for the canal? Won’t we also need water to guarantee the viability of the country itself?

Environmental economics expert Michael Hanemann stressed that from an environmental perspective the risks of constructing a megaproject of this magnitude are less important than those of operating it, “because when the canal goes into operation it will be continually interacting with a living ecosystem.” In this regard, he and other scientists insisted that the evaluation throughout the ESIA on how to mitigate the numerous negative impacts the canal could provoke—and it mentions many—is unrealistic, is based on assumptions of good will and good goals, doesn’t propose imposing any obligation on either the company or the State and doesn’t take into account the changes and variations this “living ecosystem” will experience.

For example, the ESIA didn’t evaluate the effects climate change will have on the canal, even though one of its major expressions in Nicaragua so far has been severe droughts. Moreover ours is one of the planet’s most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change.

Only one profile for the dredging

Another of the ESIA’s incredibly superficial evaluations was its profile of the depth and characteristics of the lake’s sediments and of the lake bottom in general as a basis for designing the dredging.

It only drilled in one point of this 8,000-square kilometer lake, thus obtaining a single profile. The scientists were astonished by this, considering that several hundred profiles of the bottom would be necessary to confirm the dredging proposal.

A superficial analysis of natural disasters

The experts also expressed particular concern regarding the superficial way the ESIA evaluated the risks and threats of natural disasters, starting with not involving a single specialist on this area in the study. Julio Miranda, a civil engineer and member of the CH2M Hill engineering firm said he was stunned that the ESIA only evaluated the design for the possibility of an earthquake at the canal’s lock-gates and not the whole length of the canal, even though it crosses one of the country’s seismic zones.

Reading that the design for a possible tsunami was done by considering a wave of only 1.62 meters high, when tsunami waves can be much greater, amazed him even more. He also pointed out that the treatment for possible seismic effects was based on designs for buildings, vertical infrastructures, not for a canal of this one’s horizontal dimensions. Miranda questioned whether ERM used Chinese standards for the designs, which are not valid internationally. He also expressed surprise that only three pages of the study were dedicated to volcanic risks, concluding that there is no risk even though the canal will pass only 7.5 miles from the Island of Ometepe, which has two volcanos, one of them still active.

Repeatedly during the workshop the experts pointed out that the ESIA suffers from a lack of qualitative information and doesn’t offer enough quantitative data. It’s worth underscoring that the only well-detailed numbers in the ESIA are in a 10-page appendix to volume 13, where the thousands of hectares that will be expropriated in thirteen municipalities of two departments (Rivas and Río San Juan) as well as the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region are specified, although the price HKND would pay for them was previously eliminated.

In the workshop’s inaugural session, which was public, a peasant who belongs to the National Council in Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty told the panel of scientists that “they’re not going to build the canal; what they want is to steal our lands for those other projects that are also in the law. And if they haven’t stolen them from us yet it’s because we’re fighting.” Those potentially affected who are determined to continue struggling to defend their lands thus see the canal law itself, Law 840, as the greatest risk and threat.

“Nicaragua will be worse
than doing nothing”

At the end of the 11,000 pages of text, the ESIA lays out five possible scenarios: no canal and continuation of current trends, an uncompleted canal, a canal that doesn’t meet international standards, a canal that doesn’t meet economic forecasts, and a canal that does meet international standards. After describing and imagining what would be achieved with each of them (in which the best scenario is justified not on the ESIA’s findings about Nicaragua’s canal, but merely on the “success” of Panama’s), the document still felt compelled to warn that the project is “fraught with risks.” If it is “not constructed in accordance with international good practice and the proposed mitigation measures are not properly implemented; or if the Project’s business case is not realized and the predicted longer term indirect and induced benefits from the Project do not occur; or if construction of the canal is not completed, Nicaragua may be worse off than doing nothing.”

After analyzing and debating the ESIA and reflecting on these five scenarios, the international experts joined their national colleagues in unanimously concluding that the study notes all the concerns, fears and risks that Nicaragua’s Academy of Sciences has been pointing out since 2013, without being listened to by the government.

They added that, while the ESIA abounds in “qualitative” descriptions of the “many risks,” it doesn’t offer quantitative data that provides a clear dimension of those risks and hence of their impacts. And they recognized that the irreversible damages the canal would cause are unacceptable in a country whose greatest wealth is Nature.

Moreover, as not so much as a single number in the ESIA backs up the assertion by the government and HKND that the net economic, environmental and social impact will be positive, while numerous statements indicate that the risk is huge, the experts closed the workshop with a powerful alert: Stop the project! Overwhelmed by the inadequacy of everything they had analyzed, engineer Julio Miranda added: “This is serious: do field work, not desk work.”

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