The Panama Canal, not only an engineering marvel

By Juan Carlos Martinez

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The Panama Canal is not only an engineering marvel. Its construction also created very interesting environmental impacts on Panama's enormous biodiversity. Between 1881 and 1914 one the biggest engineering feats in the world was built in Panama. During the construction of the Panama Canal 135 million cubic meters of earth, rock and mud were removed. In addition to this 425 km2 of jungle was flooded. Both these events greatly contributed to changing the national landscape. Nature suffered the various modifications.

One of the first impacts was the transfer of species from ocean to ocean. Each ocean having its own specific conditions. Another impact was the transfer of seeds from other latitudes into Panamanian soil. Nowhere is this more evident than in Barro Colorado Island. Before the Canal was built Barro Colorado Island was a hill. With the flooding it became an island with a unique biodiversity. Generally this fragmentation of the ecosystem causes a decrease in specie variety. It also creates fertile ground for non native seeds to invade, thrive and propagate. This is the case with Canal grass which was originally only found in the banks of the Canal but is now widely spread.

Another interesting impact of the Canal was the demographic growth along the Canal banks of human communities such as Arraijan and La Chorrera. This was accompanied by the usual deforestation that demographic growth generates. This growth was directly fueled by the Panama Canal as the infrastructure created for the construction made it easier to create large communities. The proximity to a large source of jobs also made it attractive for communities.

Demographic growth and the decrease in the number of species are many times inextricably linked. As the specie diversity decreases, the genetic qualities of the remaining species are diluted and over the long run they become less resistant to disease as their immune system weakens. This is significant because under these conditions disease and parasites are more easily passed on to humans. This is by no means an imminent concern, however all of these impacts must be taken into account in view of the current Canal Expansion project which is another engineering marvel and which will also have a significant impact on the environment.

In terms of environmental impact another area that deserves attention is water. This is one of the environmental elements that shows the least impact. Water is the motor of the interoceanic waterway. Every transit requires 52 million gallons of water. Since the waterway was built on a lock system it needed to be a fresh water route. This fresh water channel also provides drinking water to the country's main cities causing the ACP to closely monitor water quality. The only significant impact on water was the flooding of Lake Gatun.

Lake Gatun was created 97 years ago. It was created when the Chagres river was dammed and is today a sanctuary for many species. It was created through an enormous earth dam close to the Chagres river mouth which flooded a huge extension of jungle. This explains why at the bottom of Lake Gatun you will find a vast forest of tree trunks such as mahogany, cedar, among others. The lake also buried towns such as Gatun and Matachin. The Canal Expansion is expected to bring more of these changes.



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