Panama Canal - Waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific


The Panama Canal is a waterway that connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. Before the canal was opened in 1914 ships had to travel around the southern tip of South America to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The Panama Canal shortens the journey by about 11000 km.

The Panama Canal is 82 km long. Ships travel through the waterway through a system of locks. Panama is a hilly country and it was not possible to build a sea-level canal. Instead ships must pass through chambers that are filled with water. They raise and lower ships from one level of the canal to another. Each of the locks is about 300 meters long. Ships cannot travel through the locks by themselves. They are connected to cables and pulled by trains that move alongside the canal. There is always a pair of locks so that ships can travel in both directions. When a ship enters the canal a special canal pilot comes on board and guides the ship through the canal safely. It takes a ship about 8 to 10 hours to travel through the Panama Canal.



diagram of the Panama Canal

Diagram of the Panama Canal - User:Johantheghost (JPEG version by Wikid77)


History of the Panama Canal

People have dreamed of connecting the two oceans for a long time. In the 1880s Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French engineer who had built the Suez Canal a few years before, attempted to build a canal through Panama by digging straight through the hills but the project failed.


In 1903 Panama became an independent country and allowed the United States to build a canal on its territory. The two countries signed a treaty which not only gave the Americans the right to control the canal but also gave them land on which the canal was built. The Americans decided to build a canal that depended on locks because they thought it would be cheaper and easier to build. It took about 10 years to build the Panama Canal and up to 40,000 men worked on the project.

Even though diseases like yellow fever and malaria could already be cured at that time, thousand s of workers died in the jungle of Panama. In 1914 construction ended and the canal was officially opened.

The Canal Zone became a kind of American colony and led to many problems between America and Panama in the 20th century. Many citizens of Panama did not want the Americans in their country. In 1977 the United States and Panama signed a new agreement and on December 31, 1999 the USA handed the Canal Zone over to the Panamanian government. Today, Panama operates the canal but the United States still has the right to defend it in times of war.

The Panama Canal is very important for the world’s economy. About 12,000 ships and 200 million tons of goods pass through the canal every year. However, the canal has become too small and big freighters and supertankers cannot travel through it. Panama and the United States are planning to make the canal bigger so that larger ships can pass through.


Panama Canal - the Gatun Locks

The Gatun locks - Stan Shebs


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Related Topics




  • agreement = when two people or countries have the same opinion on something
  • alongside = next to
  • attempt = try
  • century = a hundred years
  • chamber = here: area of the canal that is closed by gates
  • citizen = a person who lives in a country and has rights there
  • connect = link
  • construction = the building of
  • cure = treat, become healthy
  • defend = guard, protect
  • depend on = need
  • dig = to move earth
  • disease = illness
  • economy = the buying and selling of products in the world
  • engineer = a person who plans, designs and builds roads, buildings etc...
  • freighter = a ship that carries goods
  • goods =products
  • government = people who rule a country
  • guide = to help a boat through the canal
  • independent = free
  • instead = in its place
  • journey = trip
  • locks = parts of a canal that are closed off by gates. When water is let into the lock the ships move up, when water is let out ships move down
  • operate = manage , control
  • raise = lift, to move up
  • sea-level canal = canal without locks; the Suez Canal is a sea-level canal
  • shorten = to make shorter
  • sign = to put your name on a document
  • tip = end
  • treaty = a written piece of paper between two people or countries
  • waterway = a river or a canal that boats or ships travel on