Ask anyone in the world what the first thing is they think of when they hear the word “Panama,” and the nearly universal response would have to be CANAL! One Hundred years ago the opening of the Panama Canal literally changed how the world worked. Shipping no longer had to make the treacherous voyage around Cape Horn, one of the worst places for shipping on the face of the globe.
Eventually, though shipping outgrew the size of the Canal’s locks. The lock chambers are 110 ft (33.53 m) wide by 1,050 ft (320 m) long, with a usable length of 1,000 ft (305 m). These dimensions determine the maximum size of ships that can use the canal; this size is known as Panamax. For years many new ships have been referred to as Postpanamax because they wouldn’t fit. Now, though, the country has been on a construction project unlike any other ever attempted. They’ve been building new locks to accommodate the larger ships. The new lock chambers will be 427 m (1,400.92 ft) long, 55 m (180.45 ft) wide, and 18.3 m (60.04 ft) deep. They will use rolling gates instead of miter gates, which are used by the existing locks.
To give you some idea of the immensity of this project take a look at these two videos updating the progress of the new lock system. Work is close to 90% completed. Income from the Canal today, and what will come from increased traffic (though it will take decades to pay off the several BILLION dollars the project will cost) is what makes Panama the most prosperous country in Central America and much of South America as well. Not only had the Canal project been a boon here ports all over the United States and Europe have been on a building boom, too, to match the anticipated volume of large shipping that will be coming their way with the completion of the Canal.
One thing worries me, though. This project has been a boon to construction workers in the country, and people don’t often think of all the businesses that support such a project…concrete companies, the drivers who haul the concrete and the land that’s being excavated. The mechanics who maintain those trucks. And it gets right down to the little corner “Super Minis” of “Chinos”, Panama’s answer to convenience stores where the workers spend their pay checks. What happens to all those people when the project is finished. What will they do for work then? Will it cause social unrest and massive unemployment? Time will tell, of course.