I am joining the MIT Supply Chain Management Trek to Panama. Ever since studying naval architecture and marine engineering at Webb Institute, I have been curious about maritime shipping and the infrastructure and logistics that move cargo from origin to destination. And there are few better places to witness the impressive grandeur of global trade than the Panama Canal. For the trek, we visit the canal, including the current expansion project, as well as the Port of Balboa on the Pacific, Port of Colon on the Caribbean on the Atlantic, and various logistics hubs. Since I have been studying maritime shipping at MIT, I am also helping to run a Panama Canal port strategy exercise with the SCM students.
The canal uses a system of locks to raise ships 85 feet above sea level to Lake Gatun, an artificial body of water created to allow ships to navigate across the mountainous Panamanian interior, and then lower them through another set of locks back down to sea level. The two sets of locks lie at the Atlantic and Caribbean entrances to the canal.
A very brief history of the canal: The French originally attempted to create a sea-level canal, but it failed because of several issues, including their lack of understanding of the land and Panama’s mountains of solid rock. Legend has it that the French heard there were mountains and brought their snow shovels. After the French, the US took control over the region in 1904. Some call it an invasion, though the US was already in Panama supporting the revolt against Colombia that resulted in Panama’s independence. To construct the canal, the US created dams to flood the mountains with diverted streams and took advantage of natural rainfall. Fighting yellow fever also proved to be the most serious obstacle. By 1914, the canal was open for business.