A proposed waterway to rival the Panama Canal could make Nicaragua the richest country in Central America, a project official said. The country recently approved the US$40 billion project, granting the concession to little-known Hong Kong company HKND Group. Under the deal, the company led by Wang Jing gets 50 years of exclusive rights to build and operate the canal in exchange for Nicaragua receiving a minority share of the profits. Now its poorest nation, "Nicaragua will become by far the richest country in Central America - and that will affect the entire region," the daily Pagina Siete quoted HKND spokesman Ronald MacLean Abaroa as saying. MacLean Abaroa is a former mayor of La Paz and is now an adviser to HKND. "Investment in this project is three to four times the GDP of Nicaragua, there will be an effect of full employment and prosperity," he said. Environmentalists have warned that the project could spark an environmental disaster that threatens drinking water supplies and fragile ecosystems. MacLean Abaroa has said the company was considering four possible routes for the waterway, and all would necessarily go across Lake Nicaragua. In the lake lies an island with an active volcano and 300 small islands. MacLean Abaroa said the waterway project could generate resources to deal with environmental problems such as the cleaning up of the lake and deforestation caused by endemic poverty and civil war. The canal plan includes building ports, an airport, pipeline and a railway. A free trade zone is also set to be created. The waterway is expected to be wider and deeper than the 82km Panama Canal. Work should begin in May next year after a feasibility study is completed.