The real success story of Panama Canal

It was 1881 when the French undertook the project of Panama canal with the ambition to join the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The idea was there ever since this part of land was discovered by Vasco Núñez de Balboa (against whom name is the Panamian currency called Balboas) and even in 16th century, the Spanish wanted to construct a canal but they did not have the technical expertise needed for this at that time. To take part of this strategic path, a rail track was constructed by the Chinese in 1860s where ships were off loaded on one part of ~70KM land and ported through rail to the other side where another ship would take the load and keep moving.

The French seemed well prepared. Ferdinand de Lesseps who was the chief engineer of the famous Suez canal along with his team brought the most experienced workforce in this domain. The plan was prepared with all the geographic considerations and work started at a real good pace. But in 9 years of construction, the project was still any thing but on target with about 20,000 workers losing their lives. No not in the blasting or other construction related injuries or the venomous snakes hidden in the rainforest, but due to the yellow fever and malaria. Given the loss of workers, the morale of the rest of the workforce was really down. There were other factors also and the project was abandoned and it appeared that such a canal is not possible.

Panama Canal Extension 3

(Photo by me. Panama Canal expansion project. New set of locks on the Atlantic side)

Then the Americans took over this project in 1903 and used some part of the work done by the French earlier. They knew that the project didn’t complete due to the loss of workers rather than any technical grounds, so they first thought to solve that problem. There was a sanitation office setup with this special mission to eradicate yellow fever, malaria and similar diseases in this region. There was investment in extensive sanitation projects, including city water systems, fumigation of buildings, spraying of insect-breeding areas with oil and larvicide, installation of mosquito netting and window screens, and elimination of stagnant water. This did not completely eliminate the malaria like diseases but helped a lot in controlling it which resulted in the canal completed almost on scheduled and starting operating in 1914. It is now 101 years that canal is still operating and now an expansion of canal is underway that will double the passage of ships in a day which is estimated to open in 2016.

The above is a summary of the story of Panama Canal that I heard during my recent visit there. We enjoyed the beautiful beaches and diverse wildlife in the rainforest but the most talking goes around the Panama Canal (including the famous Palindrome “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama”). And using the ‘over-simplification logic’, I concluded that success of building the canal was not coming with a beautifully engineered design or well orchestrated work. Rather it was about supporting and protecting the workforce from diseases like Malaria so that they can focus on the work.

And then I looked around the modern day workplaces and the diseases that make them toxic. There are Malaria like attacks from distrust, dishonesty, lack of communication and not appreciating the lives of talented workers.

The workplaces that work on removing such diseases first rather than solving the technical problems, produces wonders like Panama Canal. Are you willing to do that?


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