I read in EL PAÍS that climate change is beginning to worry the authorities of the Panama Canal, and my first reaction is one of genuine surprise: shouldn’t it have worried them a long time ago? The construction of the canal is inseparable from the vicissitudes of the Panamanian climate, which in the 19th century discouraged experienced engineers in other companies, killed thousands of workers and ended up defeating the huge project of Ferdinand de Lesseps, that wonderful Frenchman soaked in hubris who he had already opened the Suez Canal and could not understand why the isthmus was resisting him. I tried to tell that adventure in a novel Secret history of Costaguana, and I remember those years of writing with gratitude, for every little discovery seemed to make up an entire novel.
The canal has always seemed to me a fabled place, a kind of metaphor for Latin America. It is a space that concentrates our best angels and also our demons; its history is that of man’s struggle against the elements, which has occupied so many pages in our literature, but it was also for decades a national trauma for Colombia, which in 1903 lost that arm of its territory due to incompetence, corruption and neglect. That story is still a figure for US imperialism, or its clearest premonition: I took Panama, I don’t know if you remember it. And it is a pity that this mythical place, the scene of great battles (physical, political, intellectual), has been installed in the imagination of so many people as a mere transit area for Chinese ships to carry goods to the rest of the world.
The report in this newspaper says that climate change is worrisome for several reasons, but it all comes down to a diagnosis with no way out: the canal depends on water. Having too much or too little hinders mechanical operation. I’ve seen that operation, and there are few things more fascinating when you know what’s behind it. That morning in 2011 I was hit by a ship from Singapore carrying Korean cars to Europe, and readers are sorry if the beginning of this sentence immediately bores them; But the passage of that ship from one ocean to another, which today has ceased to amaze us, was at some point of inconceivable daring. Raise a ship 26 meters above the Pacific level and transfer it, through a system of locks, to Gatun Lake, so that it can then go back down in the Caribbean: the trial and error process that led to that system killed thousands of men, from French engineers dying of yellow fever to Chinese workers buried by landslides. Witnesses say that, in the rainy season, the earth excavated during the day returned to its place during the night, and when the machines removed it again they found the corpses of the unsuspecting.
So water, the canal instrument, was the main problem from the beginning. But now his authorities worry about climate change. It seems that all of us, even the most informed, have realized it too late.