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Panama's Expanding Canal Can't Keep Up With Megaships

A ship carrying four new gates for the Panama Canal
A ship carrying four new gates for the Panama CanalPhotograph by Rodrigo Arangua/AFP via Getty Images

When it was completed a century ago, the Panama Canal was the largest engineering project the world had ever seen: A 50-mile cut through mountainous, malarial terrain to create gravity-fed water locks that could lift giant freighters and ocean liners 85 feet up from sea level, across the isthmus, and back down again. Now, though, this historic achievement is too small.

Panamanians overwhelmingly voted in a 2006 national referendum to expand the canal. The $5.25 billion project will widen and deepen the existing channel while creating two new entranceways, one on the Atlantic side, one on the Pacific. Most important—and ambitious—the project will create a new set of locks that are bigger and yet more efficient at husbanding water. (Each time the locks open, they drain Panama’s Gatun Lake a little bit.) The project is scheduled for completion by April 2015.