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Group studies Caribbean-Pacific link as one alternative to Panama Canal.

Group studies Caribbean-Pacific link as one alternative to Panama Canal

Linking the Atlantic to the Pacific by means of a $17 billion sea-level canal is only one of several radical and not-so-radical ideas now under study, in an effort to prepare the increasingly obsolete Panama Canal for superships of the 21st century.

The canal, which is crucial to the coffee industries of Colombia, Costa Rica and several other major Latin American coffee producers, is scheduled to be returned to Panama at noon, Dec. 31, 1999.

According to Panama Canal Commission statistics, some 429,000 of coffee moved through the waterway in fiscal 1990, up from 288,000 tons in fiscal 1989.

Last month, the Commission for the Study of Alternatives to the Panama Canal - made up of delegates from the U.S., Panama and Japan - wrapped up final negotiations on its first big contract, nine years after its establishment by the governments of the three nations.

The $5 million management contract to the international consortium Sinbol S.A. follows five years of commission inactivity, during which time Panama's economy was strangled by the Noriega regime.

"Our budget was originally $20 million, but very little of that was spent because of the political problems in Panama," said U.S. delegate David F. Bastian, whose office occupies most of the second floor of the Banco Union tower in downtown Panama City.

Bastian said the purpose of his organization is to find alternatives to the 51-mile-long Panama Canal. Despite assurances from canal officials, concerns are mounting worldwide over the waterway's ability to handle larger ships into the 21st century.

"The canal can accommodate roughly 90% of the world's fleet, even though it's 76 years old. The problem is that the mix is constantly getting weighted towards larger ships," Bastian said.

"Currently, 23% of the ships transiting the canal are Panamax ships (whose beams measure between 100 and 106 feet, just enough to squeeze through the locks). That mix is increasing about one percentage point a year. The tighter the boundaries are, the longer it takes a ship to get through."

The trilateral commission, which has until September 1993 to present its final report, is focusing only on Panama and is not considering alternate canal proposals through Costa Rica, Nicaragua or Colombia at this time.

Possible solutions to the canal crunch, said Bastian, range from building a third set of locks to accommodate bigger ships, widening the eight-mile-long Gaillard Cut near the Pacific end of the canal, and building a new sea-level waterway between the Caribbean and the Pacific which would entirely bypass the existing Panama Canal.

"Panamax ships can only transverse the Gaillard Cut during daylight hours, one way at a time. If you widen the cut, you allow two-way traffic 24 hours a day. However, you do nothing to ease the burden of larger ships getting in and out of the locks."

According to a 37-page report prepared by Bastian last year, just widening the cut from 500 feet to 630 feet would cost $400 million - slightly more than the $387 million it originally cost to build the canal in 1914. The entire Third Locks Plan would cost $2.5 billion, while another proposal, the Deep Draft Lock Canal Plan, would carry a price tag of $4.8 billion.

However, the most expensive option by far is the sea-level canal, whose cost could run as high as $17.5 billion - nearly four times the gross national product of Panama in 1989.

But few people actually expect the sea-level canal, first proposed in the 60's by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and modified by a Japanese consortium nine years ago, to become a reality.

"There's nobody in the U.S. who thinks a sea-level canal is worth the investment," said one senior American diplomat who asked not to be named.

"Most of us believe it's a dream," echoed Dilsia Alleyne, a tour guide who works at the Miraflores Locks just north of Panama City. "We would encounter ecological problems. Vegetation and animal life on the Atlantic side are different from those on the Pacific side."

Said Bastian: "You can't quantify what would happen if you connected the two oceans. Nobody is able to say. But the environmental concerns have grown tremendously. If you can build something cheaper that can last for decades, why not do it?"
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Title Annotation:Commission for the Study of Alternatives to the Panama Canal
Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Words:725
Previous Article:With Noriega out, exporters see hope for Panama's coffee industry.
Next Article:Colombia: Colpuertos eliminated; private enterprise invited to control harbor.
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