Wed, Sep 05, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Panama Canal expansion begins

AFP , PANAMA CITY

A boy runs through balloons as tugboats spray water after a ceremony marking the beginning of the Panama Canal expansion project in Paraiso on the outskirts of Panama City on Monday. Panama blasted away part of a hillside next to the canal to mark the start of the waterway's biggest expansion project since it opened 93 years ago.

PHOTO: AP

Construction got under way on Monday on a US$5.25 billion pro-ject to improve and expand the Panama Canal, considered one of the world's engineering wonders.

The project will double the capacity of the 80km canal, built from 1904 to 1914 by the US, which relinquished control of the waterway to Panama in December 1999.

Panamanian President Martin Torrijos on Monday hosted former US president Jimmy Carter at a ceremony marking the start of the expansion, which is expected to take 10 years to complete.

Also attending the ceremony were Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Salvadoran President Elias Saca and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

The project, which will build a third set of locks on the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the waterway, will ensure that today's supersize container ships, cruise liners and oil tankers -- many of which are too wide for the canal -- will be able to navigate the waterway in the future.

The largest ships that now use the canal carry as many as 5,000 containers, but future supertankers and ships carrying as many as 12,000 containers can use the canal.

Monday's ceremony fell on the on the 30th anniversary of the 1977 signing of an agreement between then US president Carter and Panama's head of government, General Omar Torrijos -- the current president's father -- that put the canal under Panamanian control.

Schools and government offices were closed on Monday, as Torrijos had urged Panamanians to participate in the public events marking the day.

About 50,000 people attended, local officials and the media said, despite expected heavy weather as Caribbean Hurricane Felix headed for the region.

Some 14,000 ships, comprising about 5 percent of annual world commerce, pass through the Central American shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, avoiding the arduous and costly journey around South America.

Approximately 80 percent of Panama's economy is linked to canal activity, amounting to some US$6 billion.

The waterway's main users are the US, China and Japan.

The third set of locks, parallel to the existing two, would accommodate massive vessels 366m in length, 49m wide and with a 15m draft.

Today, the so-called post-Panamax ships -- too wide and too long for the Panama Canal -- must circle Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America to pass between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

The government says work would be financed by a hike in tolls, worth US$1.2 billion in 2005.

Panamanian authorities say the project will directly generate 7,000 jobs, and indirectly 35,000.

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