The Panamanian government celebrated yesterday after voters backed a US$5.25 billion plan to widen the country's transcontinental canal to allow the world's biggest ships to sail between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
With nearly all the votes counted, election officials announced more than 78 percent of the voters had approved the plan calling for construction of a third set of locks and other modernization work along the waterway.
Only about 22 percent voiced opposition in the course of the referendum, the officials said.
"Today we have become the masters of our own destiny," an elated President Martin Torrijos said in an address to the nation.
"Today, we have laid the foundation of a better country," he said.
Turnout barely reached 40 percent, but officials blamed that in part on a televised soccer match between rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Torrijos and the Canal Authority, the government agency that has run the waterway since it was handed over to Panama by the US in 1999, insisted that not widening the 92-year-old waterway would leave it obsolete after 2012.
About 80 percent of the GDP Panama, which has a population of 3 million, is linked directly or indirectly to canal activity, with the waterway's main users being the US, China and Japan.
Proponents say the canal, through which roughly 4 percent of world trade passes, badly needs an overhaul to accommodate new, larger ships and remain competitive against other maritime routes.
It takes eight to 10 hours to cross the Isthmus of Panama via the 80km canal. But the actual average time, including the wait, is 26 hours.
The proposed third lane, parallel to the existing two, would accommodate massive vessels 366m in length, 49m wide and with a 15m draft.
Construction is scheduled to begin late next year and expected to be completed in 2014.