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Scientists question rush to build Nicaragua canal

By
Brooks Hays

HOUSTON, March 4 (UPI) -- An international consortium of environmental scientists -- featuring leading researchers from 18 institutions in the United States and Central and South America -- have voiced their opposition to the Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal and the haste with which the project has been initiated.

Late last year, the Hong Kong-based HKND Group announced it had begun construction on the Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal in Rivas, Nicaragua, despite controversy and criticism surrounding the project.

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The scientists say the rush to construct the canal, which developers hope will connect the Caribbean Sea (and the Atlantic Ocean) with the Pacific, is putting the ecological health of Lake Cocibolca at risk. The canal will intersect the lake, which serves as the main freshwater reservoir for Central America. Lake Cocibolca, also called Lake Nicaragua, is the largest freshwater body in Central America and the ninth largest in the Americas.

In addition to providing Central Americans with drinking and cooking water, it is also home many of the region's most fragile ecosystems -- an epicenter of biodiversity.

"The biggest environmental challenge is to build and operate the canal without catastrophic impacts to this sensitive ecosystem," Pedro Alvarez, Rice University environmental engineer, said in a press release.

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Some 5,100 ships are estimated to pass through the canal every year. Alvarez and his colleagues say that traffic could result in devastating oil spills and the introduction of invasive species.

Additionally, Alvarez say the construction, including major dredging operations, will impact aquatic life "through alterations in turbidity and hypoxia, triggered by resuspension of nutrients and organic matter that exert a relatively high biochemical oxygen demand."

This is the first time Alvarez has spoken out against the project.

Earlier this year, Alvarez joined scientists Jorge Alberto Huete-PĂ©rez and Axel Meyer in penning a critical editorial in the journal Science.

"It is incumbent upon scientists, human rights advocates, nongovernmental organizations and wildlife protection organizations to share knowledge, voice concerns, provide guidance and demand a greater role for science in the design and construction of this massive project," the wrote.

In the new critique, scientists argue that Nicaragua should publish a more detailed cost-benefit analysis that addresses both the economic and environmental impacts.

The latest paper was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

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