Friday, June 24, 2011

From Adversary to Asset-1: The Panama Canal

I find that it is too easy to pass through the Panama Canal. On a cruise ship, the 8-10 hour transit begins at first light and at sea level. By the time breakfast service ends, the ship has begun its transit at the rarified altitude of 85 feet- the heavens for an ocean going vessel. All of this is too easy as it requires no effort on your part and that it is too easy to miss the significance of the effort that it once took.

Even before the days of Google Earth, Panama was the logical candidate to shortcut the 8000 miles voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The 50-mile Central American isthmus was half the distance of the Suez Canal successfully completed by Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1869. But unlike the sea level ditch that was dug out of dry desert sand in Africa, Panama had a high and unstable rocky spine along with incessant rain and water. Lots and lots of water.

The French effort ultimately failed, bogged down by cost overruns and the tragic cost of lives. More than 20,000 workers died in this effort, not so much as the result of the back breaking toil, but because of tropical diseases that persisted unknowingly in all that water.

The American effort, spearheaded by Theodore Roosevelt was ultimately successful because they were able to develop a respectful understanding of the French foe and turn the water to their advantage. The medical advances that malaria and yellow fever had their origins in the stagnant mosquito infested puddles merged successfully with the engineering efforts that harnessed the volume the water to power the systems of locks. This greatest engineering feat of the 20th century operates near flawlessly to this day. That success was attained by a transformation of perspective that included using the one-time adversarial forces of nature as their decisive ally.

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