Scientists discuss Nicaragua canal project

A group of international scientists convened this month for a two-day workshop at FIU to discuss the data used in the environmental impact assessment study for the controversial trans-isthmus shipping canal in Nicaragua.

The mega project is currently being planned by the Nicaraguan government with the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Company (HKND). The canal would exceed the Panama Canal in both size and capacity.

NicaraguaThe workshop focused on the initial environmental impact report commissioned by HKND and produced by consultant firm Environmental Resources Management. The group of scientists reviewed the available data and provided feedback on the science behind the report, which is still in the draft stage.

“Nicaragua is a nation of high biological and cultural diversity that is suffering from an ongoing loss of habitat and diminishing ecosystem services,” said Todd Crowl, director of FIU’s Southeast Environmental Research Center and workshop participant. “This workshop at FIU was a great opportunity for scientists from all over the world to come together and get a first look at the initial data about the environmental implications of the proposed canal.”

The workshop included ecology, conservation and water law experts from FIU and other universities throughout the United States and across the world. It also included scientists from the United States Geological Survey, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, Fauna & Flora International, Wildlife Conservation Society and Paso Pacifico in Nicaragua.

“Because of the enormity and complexity of the proposed project, the regional and global implications regarding the environment and the rapidity with which the project has been pulled together, we determined that FIU had a unique opportunity to open what had been a pretty closed process and assess the information and assessments being made,” Crowl said. “The workshop, which was modeled after the gold standard in independent review around the world and used by U.S. federal research agencies, was the first necessary step toward engagement of the global scientific community and all other stakeholders.”

The scientists, noting the immense scale of the project, raised concerns about massive ecological change that would likely occur in Nicaragua if construction of the canal proceeds. Much of the discussion centered on the project’s water needs, both availability and quality. Because of Nicaragua’s strongly seasonal climate, which is subject to extreme events including drought and hurricanes, the scientists questioned the projected availability of water supplies for the project. Discussions focused on the potential impact of climate change on the canal’s water supply and the impact of the project on Nicaragua’s marine, aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity.

At the conclusion of the two-day workshop hosted at FIU’s College of Law, the consensus from the scientists is much more data and research must be collected to adequately assess the true impact of the mega project. The complete findings from the workshop will be released as an addendum to the formal environmental impact report to be issued by ERM later this spring.