Hakai Magazine

aerial photo of the Panama Canal
Several cargo ships sit on the Panama Canal’s Gatun Lake, taking advantage of the maritime shortcut. Photo by Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo

Canals Interrupted

Canals are vital conduits for the global shipping industry. They’re also so contentious that they’re often stalled or cancelled.

Authored by

by Erin Van Rheenen

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Never underestimate the importance of a big ditch, especially if it links two oceans. Canals allow for the rapid and free flow of goods, keeping the global economy ticking. Any threat to a major shipping canal means economic and political turmoil. Look at the Suez Crisis of 1956: when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, Israel, France, and Britain invaded, and the former Soviet Union threatened to bombard Europe with nuclear missiles if the invading forces did not withdraw.

Politics also determine whether a canal ever gets built. Hugely expensive and often controversial, canal projects tend to sputter and die. In fact, the natural state of such projects—even those that eventually succeed—seems to be either abandoned or suspended.

After conquering Egypt in 1798, for example, Napoleon wanted a canal cut across the Isthmus of Suez. Advisers erroneously reported that the waterway would cause catastrophic flooding, since they believed the Red Sea was 10 meters higher than the Mediterranean. It wasn’t until 1847 that engineers found there was little difference in altitude between the bodies of water; the Suez Canal opened in 1869.

And when French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, who helped push through the Suez project, cast his eye on Panama, more than 25,000 workers died and billions of francs were squandered before the project imploded in 1889, leaving the canal unfinished and Lesseps convicted on charges of fraud and corruption. In 1904, an American-led team revived the dig; the Panama Canal opened in 1914.

So failures exist only when everyone gives up on the idea, and moribund canals can be brought back to life. Who knows which of these projects will one day be realized?

Nicaragua Canal

Five years ago, a Chinese billionaire was set to bankroll a 276-kilometer canal across Nicaragua that was supposed to rival the Panama Canal to the south. But when Wang Jing lost more than half of his fortune in a stock market crash, the project was put on hold, where it remains today.

The Nicaragua canal idea has been around for more than 160 years. In the 1840s, another rich and ambitious foreigner—US businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt—had a plan much like Jing’s. Pre-Panama Canal, travelers had to take the long way around Cape Horn or go overland across Panama. Vanderbilt didn’t get his canal, but he did create a route across Nicaragua—via steamship up a river and across a lake and overland by mule and stagecoach—that helped transport over 80,000 people, including Mark Twain, from the east coast of the United States to the west coast, where many headed to the California gold fields.

Kra Canal (aka Thai Canal)

Cutting across the Malay Peninsula in Southern Thailand, this 102-kilometer canal would link the Gulf of Thailand in the South China Sea with the Andaman Sea on the Indian Ocean, creating a 1,200-kilometer shortcut for ships sailing from Europe to Asia. It would also let ships skip the heavily trafficked, piracy-prone Strait of Malacca, through which almost half of the world’s total annual seaborne trade tonnage has passed in recent years, including three-quarters of China’s oil imports from Africa.

First proposed in 1677 by the king of Siam (the former name of Thailand), the canal is now championed by China, which offered to underwrite it in the past decade. The Thai Canal Association proposed a national committee to explore the feasibility of the canal, but the plan remains on hold. Chinese companies continue to loom large in discussions of how to move forward, with the canal now folded into that country’s hugely ambitious plan to revive and expand the historical Silk Road trade route that connected China to Europe.

Canal Via Cuba

In 1954, US-backed Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista revived a 1912 plan to cut the island nation in half with an 80-kilometer waterway linking the Atlantic and the Caribbean. The concession probably would have been awarded to a US company; at the time, American corporations owned 50 percent of the country’s railways and 80 percent of its public utilities.

The project was unpopular among Cubans from the start. Lampooned as the canal rompe Cuba (the Cuba-breaking canal), the Canal Via Cuba was seen as an attack on the country’s sovereignty. Opponents worried that the canal would be one long port for bulk sugar loading, where Cuban law and wage requirements didn’t apply. After all, in the case of the Panama Canal, the United States had negotiated complete control of the Canal Zone, becoming in effect the sovereign nation in that 16-kilometer-wide strip cutting across the isthmus. Popular protests sunk the Canal Via Cuba plan.

Cross Florida Barge Canal

A shortcut across Florida, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, was first proposed by King Philip of Spain in 1567. It wasn’t until the 1930s, however, that the canal idea really took off when the US government funded the project to create jobs during the Great Depression. Small sections of the 320-kilometer canal were built before the project was halted due to environmental concerns.

Revived in the 1960s, construction steamed along for seven years, at which point then-US president Richard Nixon pulled the plug in response to a highly effective protest that continues to inspire activists today. Concerned about damage to the Ocklawaha River, a ragtag bunch of protestors stared down a powerful alliance of business interests and state and federal officials—including the US Army Corps of Engineers—and the big guys blinked. An environmental impact statement commissioned by the activists was crucial to the fight and became a template for factoring environmental damages into the budget for large-scale public works.

Trans-Iranian Canal

First proposed by Russian engineers in the late 19th century, this canal would link the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water, bordered by Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan.

That initial proposal never moved beyond the idea phase, mostly due to Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union’s complicated relations with Iran. In the 1990s, after the Soviet Union dissolved, the plan was revived, with the Islamic Republic of Iran approving a revised feasibility study in 1999. US sanctions soon threw a wrench in the works, however, and the idea was sidelined until 2012, when the Iranian government revived talk of the canal.

Billed as Iran’s answer to the Suez Canal, this 700-kilometer waterway would be the shortest route from Russia to the Indian Ocean, bypassing the Suez Canal and the Turkish Straits, the latter appealing to any country experiencing frosty relations with Turkey. Impediments to the canal include costs—estimated to be at least US $7-billion—and opposition from Turkey and the United States. With US economic sanctions recently re-imposed on Iran, the canal faces an even more uphill battle at the moment.