In South African terms, the development of the 4 788 MW Medupi coal-fired power station represents ‘mega-engineering’ in every sense of the word.The price tag of what will be a six-unit facility stands at over R120-billion and, once completed, it will become the world’s largest dry-cooled coal fired power station.
During the construction process (which has been afflicted by disruptive industrial-relations events) Medupi’s labour force will peak at more than 17 000 people and the sleepy town of Lephalale, in Limpopo, will be transformed with new housing units, hotels and shopping centres.
But arguably the world’s most imagination-capturing current mega-engineering projects is the initiative to double the capacity of the Panama Canal by 2015.
The canal, which was initially completed in 1914, links the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and has since been regarded as a key conduit for international maritime trade.
The expansion plan is driven by necessity and desire. The necessity relates to the dramatic upscaling in the size of container ships, which the existing system is unable to accommodate. The desire is to bolster the canal's competitive position against a range of current of possible future alternatives.
To align the famous waterway with the emergence of super-sized cargo ships, or new Panamax-sized vessels, that carry up to 12 000 twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) containers, the Panama Canal Expansion aims to materially expand beyond the current capacity constraint of handling vessels carrying around 4 400 TEUs.
Panamax is shipping jargon for the biggest vessels that can traverse the current Panama Canal (the size constraints being the length, width and depth of the canal’s locks) and postpanamax constitutes ships that are too big to use the canal.
At a cost of $5.25-billion, the expansion project is 50% complete, but at least six months behind its eight-year project time schedule. Panama Canal Authority (PCA) administrator Jorge Quijano says the increased capacity of the canal will benefit the shipping trade worldwide.
“We estimate that, based on the progress, we can begin commercial transits mid-2015,” he said. The Panama Canal Expansion Project will be the largest project at the waterway since its original construction in 1914.
The objectives of the expansion project are to ensure that the canal remains competitive, increase its capacity to permit larger vessels, reduce the freshwater consumed in its operation, and increase safety and efficiency, as well as sustain growth in the tonnage transiting the canal and in the profitability of the PCA.
What the Mega-Project Entails
The expansion project entails the construction of new, longer, wider and deeper locks at the Atlantic and Pacific ends of the canal, the widening and deepening of the Atlantic and Pacific approach channels to the canal, the widening and deepening of the navigational channels through the Gaillard Cut and Lake Gatun and increasing Lake Gatun’s operational level from 26.7 m to 27.1 m.
The dredging of the navigational channels is complete, including both canal entrances on the Pacific and Atlantic sides and the Gaillard Cut. The remaining dredging work in the Gatun Lake is scheduled for completion this year.
Excavation of the Pacific lock access channel comprises four phases. Three of the four phases are complete, with phase four currently 70% complete. The project requires the excavation of more than 50-million cubic metres of materials along a 6.1 km stretch of the canal.
By the end of this year, 158 culvert, equalisation and conduit valves, 84 bulkheads and 328 trash racks will have arrived for the project. The valves were built in South Korea by Hyundai Samho Heavy Industries.
Construction of the new locks is 37% complete. The new lock complexes in the Pacific and Atlantic sides will feature three chambers, three water-saving basins per chamber, a lateral filling and emptying system and rolling gates.
The new locks will each be 427 m long, 55 m wide and 18.3 m deep, with a beam of 49 m and a draught of 15.2 m, which can allow ships of up to 366 m in length to use them.
In comparison, the existing locks are each 304.8 m long, 55 m wide and 18.3 m deep, with a beam of 32.3 m and a draught of 12.4 m, which can accommodate ships of up to 294.1 m in length.
The construction of the new locks involves the use of 1 506 t of gel explosives, 3 600 t of ammonium nitrate explosives, 4.9-million cubic metres of concrete, 1.12-million tons of cement to produce that concrete, 436 000 t of pozzolana (volcanic ash or ground slag from a blast furnace) to mix with the concrete, 279 000 t of reinforcement steel for the concrete, 47 200 t of structural steel for the lock gates and 20 000 t of structural steel for the lock valves.
The excavation of the new locks required the removal of 155-million cubic metres of earth, while construction of the existing locks required the removal of 200-million cubic metres. Mining equipment was used to speed up the work.
The canal remains open and operational while the expansion work is continuing.
The canal’s location, at the narrowest point between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, has had a far-reaching effect on economic and commercial developments worldwide throughout most of this century.
By providing a short, relatively inexpensive passageway between these two oceans, the canal has influenced world trade patterns and spurred growth in developed countries; it has also been a primary impetus for economic expansion in many remote areas of the world, states a report by the PCA.
A vessel laden with coal sailing from the east coast of the US to Japan through the Panama Canal sails about 4 800 km less than any other all-water route.
Most of the traffic through the canal moves between the east coast of the US and the Far East, while movements between Europe and the west coast of the US and Canada comprise the second major trade route of the waterway.
However, other regions and countries, such as the neighbouring countries of Central and South America, are proportionately more dependent on this vital artery to promote their economic development and expand trade.
Since the canal first opened on August 15, 1914, the waterway has provided a transit service to more than 815 000 vessels. Despite the increase in the number and size of the vessels in recent years, the total average time spent by a vessel at the Panama Canal still remains slightly less than 24 hours.
This remarkable level of performance can be attributed to the team of trained professionals trained to providing rapid transit service and to the timely implementation of improvements designed to meet rising traffic demands. About $10-million dollars is spent each year on training programmes to prepare Panamanians for the operation and maintenance of the canal.
“About 30% of vessels travel through the canal. The nature of the improvements in the canal reflects the ever-increasing role of Panamax vessels in the movement of world commerce. Using of the all-water route through the Panama Canal will continue to be an important, cost-effective transportation mode for a significant segment of world trade,” reports the PCA.
The French first attempted to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at the turn of 20th century, but were defeated by malaria and yellow fever, the heavy rainfalls typical of the tropical rainforest and financial woes. It was left to the US to complete construction of the first two-lane canal and the initial set of locks, which became operational in 1914.
On the eve of World War II, the US attempted to build a second set of locks to allow the transit of larger commercial vessels and warships. The work was started in 1939 but was subsequently aborted because of the war. The canal has since had no major upgrades.
In October 2006, the citizens of Panama voted to expand the Panama Canal to allow for more transits and bigger ships. The international maritime industry will benefit directly from the expansion through lower shipping costs and global consumers will eventually benefit from the greater capacity and efficiency of the canal.
However, media partner for professionals in the logistics of over-dimensional and heavy cargos, Heavy Lift & Project Forwarding International, states that it is likely that there will be another expansion project to cater for 18 000 TEU ships at the Panama Canal.
Most South African shipping firms have stated that the expansion is unlikely to improve or affect their business.
“We don’t believe the expansion project will have a significant impact on trade in South Africa. For Grindrod, specifically, some of our ships carrying grain may use this route, but since they are handysize vessels, the expansion will have no impact on our business,” says Grindrod Shipping CEO Martyn Wade.