Voters approve plan for bigger Panama canal

Panamanians have overwhelmingly approved a $5,25-billion plan to widen their transcontinental canal, a project that will allow the world’s biggest ships to sail between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

With nearly all the votes counted, election officials announced late on Sunday that more than 78% of the voters had said “yes” to the plan calling for construction of a third set of locks and other modernisation work along the waterway.

“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.”

Turnout hardly reached 40%, which officials blamed in part on a televised soccer match between rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Torrijos and the Panama Canal Authority, the government agency that has run the waterway since it was handed over to Panama by the United States in 1999, insisted that not widening the 92-year-old waterway would leave it obsolete after 2012.

About 80% of the gross domestic product of Panama, with a population of three million, is linked directly or indirectly to canal activity.
The canal’s main users are the US, China and Japan.

Proponents say the canal, through which roughly 4% 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.

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.

Construction is scheduled to begin in late 2007 and expected to be completed in 2014.

On Friday, the last day of the referendum campaign, former president Jorge Illueca and the former canal administrator Fernando Manfredo published a report criticising the project as costly, unnecessary and risky.

Opponents of the expansion have also said there is no urgency to make such an investment, and the government should instead tackle the poverty that affects 40% of Panama’s population.

But the government sees the canal as a means to achieve wealth for all. Torrijos pointed out on Sunday that the canal is Panama’s top money-maker and that the benefits trickle down to the humblest Panamanians.

“The canal is the biggest business the country,” he said. “By modernising it we increase the means for development and social investment.”

Panama plans $800-million in investments this year, a significant part in the social sector. Of that amount, $600-million was generated by the canal.

The US is by far the biggest user of the waterway, sending 136,5-million long tons of cargo through the canal each year, followed by China with 35,1-million and Japan with 32,2-million, according to the Panama Canal Authority.

The government says work will be financed by a hike in tolls, worth $1,2-billion in 2005.

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

The canal was built by the US between 1904 and 1914 after an initial failed attempt by the French.—AFP

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