by: Bert G. Shelton, Research Scientist and Professional Engineer March 15th , 2010
A new lane is to be added to The Panama Canal -- one to handle ships that are larger than what can fit into the two lanes the US built a hundred years ago. That is what was told to the people of Panama when they were asked to give the go-ahead vote for its expansion.
Concurrently, shipping companies and ports abroad apparently continue with the impression that, not one bigger lane, but two, are to be added to the canal in fairly short succession.
The first problem the project's "planners" had to overcome was how to obtain enough water to supply just one bigger lane, never mind two.
When the Panamanian people were informed that adjacent watersheds were to be incorporated -- which meant land would be expropriated and people displaced -- the public outcry was hastily appeased by increasing the number of water-saving tanks beside each lock chamber (of the planned third lane that the public was aware of) from two to three. With that modification, and without making mention of plans for yet a fourth lane and its water needs, the project's promoters got the go-ahead vote.
Thus, it would seem that there is no intention of honoring the Panamanian people's desire that the canal expansion not include the incorporation of more watersheds.
Money is obviously the driver of this whole affair. With some 36 transits a day that on average pay about $0.25 million each, which is about 10 times what the US charged for doing the same, there are upwards of 3 billion yearly reasons behind ensuring the success of this game.
What the Popular Vote was About
Conditions set in the canal treaties and during the negotiations for the US turn-over of the Canal to the people of Panama, were intended to safeguard the interests of both parties and to protect the watershed. Defining the watershed protection plan was an inter-disciplinary international effort that involved prestigious specialists in water-resources management.
After the vote, the apparent lack of concern demonstrated by all those governments involved in the canal turn-over preparations -- as development plans within the former Canal Zone have unfolded -- has shocked most of the knowledgeable observing public. Precisely what was not supposed to happen -- the takeover of the canal by special interests -- is what has happened. And, in effect, its watershed has been invaded for uses other than those contemplated prior to turnover.
What appears to have happened is that, when this canal expansion was announced, the players in charge around the globe were the same ones in charge leading up to the financial collapse from which the world is now trying to recover. And, considering how the present players are rewarding those responsible for that debacle, any change to the "status quo" in Panama is most improbable.
Tactics Employed in Setting-Up the Popular Vote
Prior to the vote, a series of public forums, or town meetings, were held across the country. More like a promotional campaign than a format for discussing plan particulars, these forums were carefully orchestrated to praise the job-producing and money-making virtues of the project while steering clear of any technical discussions that might derail the gravy-train.
The forums included pre-selected panelist representing the "for" and "against" expansion camps, all of whom kept to the script. When pressured by individuals in the audience to answer direct questions of a technical nature, the first action was to brush the question off as a secondary issue. If an individual persisted, that person's competence was put in question, insinuating that the questioner likely lacked the necessary depth in the subject to fully understand the answer...a tactic meant to belittle and shut the person up.
If the person was clearly knowledgeable, the deflection tactic then used was to state that a presenter qualified to answer that question was not available at the forum, but would be at a subsequent forum, which never happened.
Added to that, following the canal expansion plan's announcement to the nation, Panama's Society of Engineers and Architects (known in Panama by the acronym: SPIA) declared that it would perform a technical assessment of the plan. What the SPIA's leadership didn't realize was that political maneuvers were already afoot to derail their assessment plan and it never happened.
In addition to technical discussions at forums being effectively shut down -- an act that alone should invalidate the vote as being undemocratic -- along with the country's only qualified scientific society's plan to assess the project's technical merits being canceled, the Panamanian government officially declared that it favored going ahead with the project. That the government took sides, and openly campaigned for the go-ahead vote, was grossly undemocratic.
Furthermore, the ballot asked only whether or not the people of Panama wanted the canal to be enlarged. Any person with a working knowledge of engineering and business would be crazy to answer no to that question; the canal is a good business with great potential. The problem is that Panamanian politicians have construed the "go-ahead" vote as license for their class to "divi up" the US gift to the Panamanian people among themselves. Similarly, it was taken to give license to the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) to be independent of the nation, accountable to no one, and with the power to reach out and grab anything it wants when it decides it needs it.
What kind of a vote was that?
The story typically told at the start of the public forums was how the proposed water-saving side-tank lock design, now 140 year old, was "re-discovered" by the ACP. They claimed that the method had been overlooked by the US during its years of searching for lock designs that used less water. That feat of uncovering it -- touted as the ACP's crowning achievement -- together with the canal making more money under its management formed the basis for raising the ACP to the status of canal experts.
Historical facts, however, contradict the claim that the US failed to identify side-tank locks. All the locks the US built in the Panama Canal actually include more efficient combinations of water-saving methods than the combination of methods included in the side-tank locks planned for this expansion.
Truth be told, the ACP has never built a canal. This first crack at it, began with a failure to recognize why the canal's original designers did not use side-tanks. As for making more money, when running a monopoly, not much expertise is required to increase income by raising tolls.
What makes the ACP "canal experts"? Could it be expert dissemination of self-promoting propaganda?
It gets even better. The Canal Expansion's Master Plan does not mention -- much less compare -- any concepts applying other combinations of recognized water-reducing methods and lock operating procedures; not even those that exist in the US built Panama Canal locks. What is presented in the Master Plan would embarrass any self-respecting engineer.
Amazingly, prior to and up to voting time the Master Plan did not even include an engineering basis upon which lock designs could be developed and compared. That suggests that the "planners" of this monumental engineering project were just "winging-it" to get things rolling.
Before the vote was taken there were promises made that evaluations of details, which the ACP "did not have the money to do prior to the vote", would be faithfully done. That hasn't happened.
All of this suggests that the true purpose of the expansion has been achieved with respect to the construction work and those who will profit from it.
Seeing beyond the hype, the goal of this project does not appear to be to endow this important piece of world infrastructure with a first-class addition, one that maximizes return-on-investment by using resources optimally, while impacting third parties and the environment the least.
What They Didn't Tell Us
Based on observations along the way, it would seem that those who put together the expansion plan were oblivious to the water-saving capabilities the US built into the Panama Canal's system.
This became apparent after examining what transpired during the extended dry season that occurred immediately prior to the expansion plan's announcement, at which time cargo was unloaded from ships and railed across the Isthmus -- in order to transit ships at shallower draft -- followed by reloading at the other end.
Although the ACP was made aware of the canal's water-saving capabilities soon after that offloading and reloading fiasco, their existence has never been acknowledged, much less their use. But clearly these are now used as dry season transits have tended to take longer since then, and that unusual lock operations have been seasonally observed.
Recognized at the outset that water-saving operations take extra time and reduce the number of daily transits, the original canal's US designers included a plan to add a reservoir in the near future (today's Madden Dam and Lake) to avoid having to use the notably slower water-saving manipulations. To save some money, US politicians of the day eliminated one of the two culverts that were to be in the center-wall of the locks. Designers had included them, because water could have been manipulated markedly faster with two instead of one.
Although only the simplest procedures were used thereafter by the US canal operators, the water-saving capabilities of each of the locks were tested in the canal's early days, as witnessed by many canal employees at the time. Many passed the knowledge down.
The planned third lane is to have three steps at each end of the canal, like the locks the US built. Steps can be used to reduce water use, to manage structural limitations, and/or to handle elevation changes throughout a waterway. With steps of equal height, as is the case in Panama, the same volume of water can be used step-to-step in raising or lowering ships, resulting in less water being used.
In addition, the US built locks have paired lanes, the parallel chambers of which are laterally connected by pipes with valves. That permits water in this two-lane lock design to be drained from one chamber into its adjacent pair to fill it half-way, effectively cutting water-use in half. With side-tank locks, on the other hand, two tanks are required beside each chamber to do the same thing.
Those tanks are each as wide and as long as a chamber -- and must be piped individually to the chamber. They do nothing more than receive, hold and return water; whereas the chambers of paired-lane locks both handle ships and save water. Furthermore, paired-lane locks have fewer pipes and require fewer water movements to achieve it.
Among the Panama Canal's US built locks, is one single-step paired-lane lock unit -- the Pedro-Miguel locks -- that can raise and lower ships using 25% of the water normally used. In addition to saving water by laterally draining it from one chamber to its pair, a second ship can enter each of the chambers after the first ships traveling in the opposite direction exit, thus using just 25%.
This significantly outperforms the planned side-tank locks, which will use 40% of the water normally used per transit at each step.
More About Those Better Lock Options
If the canal expansion were reconfigured to use Pedro-Miguel style locks, a two-step system that uses about 13% less water than the three-step system planned by the ACP would result. This paired-lane system would be comprised of two single-step units at each end of the canal that have a short channel between them, similar to today's Miraflores Lake.
For the same money, instead of just doubling the canal's capacity with the planned three-step third lane, it can be tripled with a two-step paired-lane system that adds a third and a fourth lane. (Lock bids show that two more chambers would cost about the same as the planned 18 tanks.)
With the ACP's plan, tripling the canal's capacity requires the addition of a fourth lane that costs as much as the third, added to which more watershed must be acquired and prepared, adding yet more cost; not to mention that doing so goes solidly against the wishes of the people of Panama.
The beauty of the paired-lane option, besides fulfilling the people's wishes, is that it occupies less space than the planned third lane. With two lanes in the space of one, the space for the planned fourth lane can be reserved for a fifth and a sixth lane of this more efficient option.
And, if the right locks are built now, today's watershed can supply the future operation of all six! To do that would require operating the locks the US built in their maximum water-saving mode to fully supply the new lanes, while reducing their transits to no less than three fifths of normal.
(Note that this "borrowing" of water is apparently already contemplated in what is planned.)
The new lock efficiency needed to accomplish that is attained by adding a pair of tanks to each of the Pedro-Miguel style lock units, which reduces their water-use to 17% from their "normal" 25% minimum volume per transit.
Using locks outfitted in that manner would result in a new system that uses 43% less water per transit than obtainable with the planned side-tank system.
Minimizing Cost and Risk
The Pedro-Miguel system with tanks provides, by far, the least expensive way to minimize the risk of running short of water and the best way to get the most out of the present canal expansion effort. With it and the water available in today's watershed, the canal's transit capacity can be more than quadrupled at its maximum potential.
In contrast, for greater cost and with more impacts, as was noted earlier, the planned expansion will only about triple the canal's capacity. What is worse, it will add unnecessary risks.
The first point to remember is that fewer ships will transit the planned system than the equally priced, simpler, and more efficient Pedro-Miguel style system. It will also cost more to use: two ships will end up paying the toll that could transit three.
The second point to remember is that the planned system has a lot more operating parts and will require many more operations to complete a transit than otherwise. Consequently, maintenance costs will be higher and breakdowns will occur more often. That adds expense and risk.
Most importantly, what is now planned introduces a new -- and unnecessary -- risk of losing the entire canal. It requires an elevated channel to bypass Miraflores Lake, a lake that "bridges" known faults. An earthquake could fail a dike that is to be built across those faults.
While the ACP insists the seismic risk in that area is low, the French experienced a substantial quake there. In light of that, the US wisely decided to add Miraflores Lake.
Why take that risk now? Why put worldwide ports and shipping businesses in jeopardy when -- without that risk and for the same cost -- simpler two-lane locks could be built that would handle more transits? Besides tripling capacity, the investment could be paid off much sooner.
In short, a two-step paired-lane system has no unknown or risky gadgets, transits more, costs less, and causes the least impact to others. With it, truly sustainable development is possible.
A system styled after the Pedro-Miguel Locks could easily be used in place of what is planned, considering that its parts and operations are all known and in use. In addition to the benefits already noted, this system would also avoid the excessive intrusion of salt into Gatun Lake through the planned locks. The lake between the lock steps will serve as a barrier to salt intrusion, as Miraflores Lake proves at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal.
Unmasking the Con
Considering all that's been noted above, and years of independent study and analysis since the expansion of the Panama Canal was announced, it truly appears as if this construction project is being driven by charlatans looking to transfer canal wealth as quickly as possible into the pockets of family and friends in “ typical banana-republic style”.
In order to effect that transfer of wealth, acceptance of the canal expansion plan itself first had to be gained. Knowing that key concerns had to be satisfied -- regarding water conservation, environmental protection, human rights, animal rights, etc. -- promotional efforts declared them to be of great importance to the project. However, claims that due attention has been given to these concerns are not given credence by deeds.
Actually coming up with reasonably good solutions for the various challenges of the project does not appear to have ever been a project goal. This conclusion is based on project-related actions and statements, or lack thereof, as the case may be. With no one higher up holding the feet of those really in charge to the fire to put things right, they can do -- and have done -- as they please.
In this allegedly democratic republic the media regularly focuses on how the people don't have a say because the judicial system serves the state, not the people. That, in fact, is a stated reason the US declined to sign the most recent attempt at a "free" trade agreement between the two countries.
By what can be seen and surmised, there are many issues with respect to the canal that have been poorly handled, or simply ignored, and choices made that make no sense.
The bidding processes alone speak volumes about the views on ethics and how doing things right is not likely even on the project leadership's list of concerns. A closer look at which companies have “won” the dry digging and the lock construction bids -- while considering their family ties -- says it all.
Anyone who fancies participating in bids for canal-related work -- or any other work down there for that matter -- should understand that the playing field is not level. The common third world practice of requesting bids from competent firms just to obtain ideas and “how-to”, with no intent to award them work, but rather to obtain that input for the "winning" bidder, often family, is not alien to Panama.
To downplay the fact that "planners" and promoters apparently got what they were after without bothering to do real engineering, propaganda to this day relentlessly trumpets the virtues of this "great and well-planned project" ostensibly to keep up the show and all the side businesses that have sprung up in concert.
(Some of those side businesses are, in themselves, no laughing matter; and many like them -- which are most unfriendly to the locals -- are in operation throughout Latin-America.)
The fact that reputable consortia were bidding on the locks was, in effect, being characterized in the news releases as somehow validating the lock choice. The consortia, however, were not charged with investigating and proposing alternative systems; they were charged with proposing solutions to the challenges of the pre-defined system and providing construction cost estimates.
The fact that the bidding process had to be extended several times for bidders to be able to come up with ways around numerous problems with the plan -- problems that should have been resolved during the design selection and pre-engineering phase -- naturally did not receive press.
As an example of just how effective the propaganda continues to be, many people still parrot what they've heard about how transparently the bidding process was managed. Being told that they should feel honored by the fact that such fine and reputable consortia had vied for the opportunity to design and build their canal's great new locks was lapped up by them.
Where This Leaves "Joe Public"
To this day the general public remains clueless to what was, and is, really going on.
Einstein once theorized that just two things seemed infinite: the universe and human stupidity; although he wasn't absolutely positive about the universe. This would seem to support his theory.
Panamanians are not the only ones that have been taken in by this sophisticated con. Even before the Panamanian public was aware of what was afoot, project promoters had apparently wined and dined their way into the hearts of canal clients around the world -- spending money that was not yet theirs to spend -- gaining the confidence of their "clients"; all the while refining the game. Once they got the vote, any questionable conduct there may have been became irrelevant.
The con artists have, for all intents, won the game.
It would seem that these new canal owners see no need to bother with maximizing efficency to make more money, as to get more they need only tighten the squeeze on Joe Public, who will not be able to do a thing against their monopoly. Nor do they project a need to responsibly minimize the canal's load on the environment, as impacts to it probably won't become a problem until after they are dead. They will undoubtedly improve details that threaten to delay the flow of money into waiting pockets, but not likely ones negatively effecting efficiency and/or the environment.
That is, unless those using the waterway or those bearing the ultimate costs -- Joe Public -- take action now to change the outcome.
While improving the canal for the benefit of future generations appears irrelevant to their goal (which seemingly is to get very rich, very quick, and die happy), a good time to put a stop to the con would be now -- before it becomes virtually impossible once cast in concrete!
However, as the canal's new owners likely see it, their monopoly will not be challenged in their lifetime, so they are sitting pretty. Disasters left to future generations are of no concern. They are takers, and they are taking us all to the proverbial cleaners.
The con that beats all cons has been run, having successfully used public funds to fleece suckers the world over.
This historical feat will live forever in infamy.