Nicaragua releases and approves Nicaragua Canal environmental assessment

Image: ERM

Image: ERM

It took a while, but the government of Nicaragua finally released the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) for the proposed Nicaragua Canal megaproject.  It can be downloaded here.  The ESIA was handed over to the government back in early June, a few months after a group of us reviewed parts of the environmental studies at FIU in March.  It wasn't clear why the government was waiting so long to release the ESIA, though back in September the government announced that construction would be delayed in order to conduct further studies of the project.  It's not clear if those studies will still take place, as the government has approved the ESIA and allowed HKND (the company building the canal) to start construction:

Canal commission representative Manuel Coronel Kautz said the commission's decision authorizes China's HKND Company to start structural and construction design work [...] The canal, scheduled for completion in December 2019, will cut across the middle of the country and bisect Lake Nicaragua, known locally as Lake Colcibolca — the second-largest lake in Latin America and the largest drinking-water reservoir in the region. The canal will also cut through the Cerro Silva Nature Reserve.

One thing that's clear from the ESIA (developed by consulting firm ERM) is that while a net positive impact on the environment and local communities is possible, it remains an unlikely outcome under current planning scenarios:

The report says “the government would be wise to consider engaging with international development agencies such as the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank,” to avoid damage in sensitive areas like the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, the San Juan River, Lake Cocibolca and surrounding nature reserves.
“The study says that in normal situations, these areas would generally be considered untouchable due to their social and ecological fragility,” López noted.
ERM says that if further studies are not conducted and “mitigation and offset measures” are not successfully implemented, “biodiversity impacts would be significantly worse than described.”
It recommended further studies to identify seismic risks posed by construction of the canal; gauge the impact of dredging in the lake; identify the threats from the introduction of saltwater into the lake; and assess the risk of a reduction of the outflow of water from the lake to the San Juan River.
It also concludes that without the implementation by HKND and the government of the environmental and social mitigation measures recommended in the report, not even Route 4 – the one that was selected and the only one considered viable – would have the positive net impact for the environment that could justify construction of the canal.

When will the Nicaragua Canal impact study be made public?

When will the Nicaragua Canal impact study be made public?

Back in March I co-organized an independent scientific review of the draft environmental impacts assessment for the proposed Nicaragua Canal mega-project (the full assessment includes social impacts, but we didn't review those).  The project would be one of the largest infrastructure projects in history (the largest by some measures), and many are concerned about the feasibility and impacts of such a large undertaking.  As required by international standards, an Environmental and Social Impacts Assessment (ESIA) has been prepared and turned over to the Government of Nicaragua, but for reasons unexplained, the government has not publicly released the report.  

When the ESIA is released I'll have more to say on the environmental and legal aspects of the project.  Until then, Keith Schneider of Circle of Blue just published an article looking at the research and our panel's review of it, in which I am quoted calling for the release of the document.  The article can be viewed here, and is reproduced below.

Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue

On Sunday evening, May 31, executives of Environmental Resource Management, a British research consultancy, joined the principals of the HKND Group, a Hong Kong-based development group set on building a canal across Nicaragua, in a private ceremony in Managua. The event was held to formally submit a 14-volume study to Nicaraguan authorities on the environmental and social consequences of constructing a new and mammoth shipping corridor across Central America.

The following day, in a made-for-television press event, a copy of the 14-volume Environmental and Social Impacts Assessment of the proposed Nicaragua Canal was displayed on a small table for news photographers. Though the study is not available for public review, ERM and HKND executives joined government authorities in asserting the canal construction is safe and feasible, and defended the quality of the environmental assessment, which the government and HKND say is central to the case for starting excavation, perhaps before the end of the year.

“The purpose of the study is to provide an objective, current assessment based on science,” Manuel Coronel Kautz, the president of Nicaragua’s Grand Canal Authority, told reporters.

Edwin Castro, a senior Sandanista official, added that “this is the work of more than two years by ERM, with all the scientific means and serious business of ERM.”

The quality of ERM’s data, though, and the accuracy of its conclusions about the potential harms from canal construction and operation, are not nearly as airtight as Nicaraguan authorities and HKND affirm. In March, ERM invited 15 environmental scientists and project experts to Miami to spend two days reviewing four chapters of the environmental assessment. In an 11-page evaluation obtained by Circle of Blue, the panel’s members concluded this spring that ERM’s environmental study is rife with significant flaws.

Read More