President Daniel Ortega (left) and Chinese businessman Wang Jing hold up a concession agreement for the construction of a multibillion-dollar canal at the Casa de los Pueblos in Managua. Photo: AP

UpdateHong Kong-based company unveils route of Nicaragua canal to rival Panama’s

Mega-canal to rival the Panama waterway will run 278km across Central American nation and cost US$40b, HK-based firm behind it reveals

HKND, the Hong Kong-based company run by Chinese billionaire investor Wang Jing and the Nicaraguan government, has unveiled the route of a proposed US$40 billion inter-ocean waterway to compete with the Panama Canal.

Construction of the canal, the world's largest infrastructure project, is set to begin in December and take five years, Dong Junsong, HKND's chief engineer, said at a press conference in the country's capital, Managua.

Dong said that after studying six possible routes, they decided on one that starts on the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the River Brito, heads south through the city of Rivas and crosses Lake Nicaragua.

From Lake Nicaragua, it goes by the Tule and Punta Gordas rivers until it reaches the southern Caribbean by Bluefields Bay.

The route near the Costa Rican border, chosen by the company and the government, is 278km long, with 105km of that in Lake Nicaragua. If realised, the canal will be up to 30 metres deep and up to 520 metres wide.

Wang told students when he visited the Managua University of Engineering on Monday: "This project is going to be the biggest built in the history of humanity.

"It will be an enormous help to the Nicaraguan people and for the world in general, because world trade will require it. We are sure of this."

But environmental experts warn that construction could cause profound ecological damage by damming rivers, splitting ecosystems and moving tonnes of earth.

The company predicted that 5,100 ships would use the canal per year, each taking 30 hours to transit between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans.

HKND said it could have saved 3 per cent in costs had a northern route been chosen, but the southern route "minimised the social and environmental impact", according to presentation slides.

While the canal has the support of President Daniel Ortega and most Nicaraguans, legal experts say the deal violates the country's national sovereignty.

Local communities have challenged the canal in Nicaragua's Supreme Court.

Others say the project is not economically feasible. Opposition liberal deputy Eliseo Nunez called the announcement "a propaganda game, a media show to continue generating false hopes of future prosperity among Nicaraguans".

Local media such as the newspaper have pointed to the lack of progress made by Xinwei Telecom Technology, another company controlled by Wang, on developing a mobile phone network since it was awarded the contract in 2012.

HKND said its investments could transform Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in Latin America after Haiti, into one of the region's richest nations.

The company promised to employ more than 50,000 people during the five years of construction of the canal.

Once built, the canal and side projects would bring more than 200,000 jobs to the nation of six million people.

Secondary construction includes two deep water ports, an international airport in the city of Rivas, four tourism resorts and an entirely new city that should become home to 130,000 residents at the Pacific end of the canal.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Route of Nicaragua canal unveiled