Project Management Spotlight: The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal saves ships the four-week long journey around stormy Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. The canal cuts out 12,000 km (6000 miles) of sailing from New York to San Francisco. In a world where delivery time is key, the Panama Canal is a vital link in the world’s transport.

The Panama Canal was built by dividing the route into three zones – Atlantic, Pacific, and Central – and assigning each its own project manager. Each section faced particular challenges. The central zone needed to cut through the continental divide and required the building of an artificial lake, too. To cut through the continental divide, over sixty million (!!!) tons of dynamite were used. Malaria and yellow fever attacked the work force. 75,000 people worked ten hours a day for six days a week, moved millions of tons of rock and earth – and linked two oceans.

Panama Canal cross sectionThe canal is structured with a series of locks. Each lock is watertight when closed. The water level of each lock is first lowered to match the lock behind it, and when they match the doors open and the ship enters the second lock. This lock’s water level is then adjusted to the level of the next lock. And so it goes until the ship has traversed the canal from one ocean to another. Once the ship has cleared the canal, it has been lifted over the continental divide during its journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific (or vice versa).

The canal, after a hundred years of moving thousands of ships per year, was expanded to better fit modern ships. The new locks will retain 60% of the water they use, and the artificial lake will be deepened. This will ensure no new reservoirs will need to be created.

The Panama Canal remains one of the world’s engineering marvels, most important shipping links, and a good example of what effective project management can accomplish.