The locks on the Panama Canal’s Atlantic side are sure to have a busy future. The $5.25-billion Panama Canal expansion program is scheduled for completion in 2014 and will greatly increase the waterway’s capacity. The expansion work figured prominently in the sessions of the 2012 International Engineering and Infrastructure Congress, which was held in Panama City April 18–20. John Durrant
Panama City was the perfect location for the 2012 International Engineering and Infrastructure Congress, which was held April 18–20 and gave geotechnical, electrical, structural, and civil engineers from around the world an opportunity to explore risk management and risk mitigation on major infrastructure projects. Special attention was of course given to the work being done on the Panama Canal. ASCE was one of the organizers and sponsors of the congress, and the event gave ASCE participants in Panama City an early look at the site of the Society’s 2014 annual conference. That year Panama will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the opening of the canal.
ASCE’s president, Andrew W. Herrmann, P.E., SECB, F.ASCE, was on hand for the event, as was the Society’s executive director, Patrick J. Natale, P.E., F.ASCE.
The backdrop of the congress was the $5.25-billion Panama Canal expansion program, overseen by the Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (ACP) and scheduled for completion in October 2014. The expansion program, which involves the construction of a third set of locks, began in 2007 and is intended to double the capacity of the canal by enabling larger vessels to use the waterway. To accomplish this, new locks are being constructed parallel to the existing locks on both the Atlantic and the Pacific side. The project also calls for constructing new approach channels to the locks on both sides, deepening and widening the Atlantic and Pacific entrances to the canal, raising the operating water level of Lago Gatún (Gatun Lake), and widening and deepening the navigational channels of that lake and of the Culebra Cut (also known as the Gaillard Cut), an artificial channel that passes through the continental divide in Panama. Despite the scale of the work, the canal remains open and operational. (See “Board Member of ASCE Engineering Certification Body Helps Keep Panama Canal Expansion Project on Track,” ASCE News, February 2012, page 18.)
“As part of the conference we took a field trip in the morning to see the work on the Atlantic side locks, and it was the biggest infrastructure project that I have seen in my entire life. In the afternoon we went to see the work on the Pacific side locks, and it was equally the largest project I had ever witnessed,” says John E. Durrant, P.E., M.ASCE, ASCE’s senior managing director for engineering and lifelong learning, who attended the congress. Durrant believes much can be learned from these “two large projects, one on the Atlantic and one on the Pacific, being constructed simultaneously using a massive amount of equipment, employees, movement of earth, concrete—you name it. Every metric involved is huge, and at the same time ships are continuing to go through the canal, which personally I found pretty fascinating.
“Risk management on major infrastructure projects, which was the focus of this conference and is becoming part of an engineer’s responsibility, is something that only recently after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has gotten attention. [Risk management] is consistent with ASCE’s efforts in terms of lessons learned and one of those guiding principles that engineers need to pay closer attention to and become more familiar with on both the mega [infrastructure] projects and for smaller projects.”
“I think,” adds Fredric S. Berger, P.E., F.ASCE, the chairman of the Louis Berger Group, Inc., of Morristown, New Jersey, and the chair of the committee in charge of ASCE’s 2014 annual conference, “that the third set of locks project is the correct twenty-first-century version of how major engineering projects will be done in the following sense: in the past it had often been considered that the environmental rules, the hazardous waste rules, the relocation of people rules, and the historic preservation rules have always been seen as nuisance value rather than accepting that they are one more variable to be addressed.
“What was unique and I think appropriate in a twenty-first-century project is that the [ACP] instead embraced its responsibility to see its project as having a broader impact and invited the Smithsonian [Tropical Research Institute] to participate in the project because there was earth that had not been overturned in over one hundred years. [The ACP] recognized that there was going to be knowledge available if people who specialized in that were part of the process—rather than it being seen as an impediment or a necessary evil. And it is not just that they did it but the fact that they recognized that this was the responsible way to do it, even though it was going to cause issues with respect to time, schedule, cost, and so forth.”
Gregory B. Baecher, Ph.D., M.ASCE, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Maryland, presented a session at the congress dealing with the management of natural risks on large infrastructure projects. Risk management, he explains, involves “trying to understand ahead of time what potential things might go wrong in a project with respect to schedule, cost, or technical problems and then to plan ahead of time with backup plans or strategies in place for dealing with those things so that they don’t cause unexpected and significant problems.”
Consciously managing such risk, he adds, “is incredibly beneficial. It protects risks of money and time, and those are the two things that managers are most concerned with. And in a large project like the Panama Canal, it allows people to optimize the financial [aspects and consider] the potential loss of life or major indirect economic impacts that might accrue from failures by preparing for those things ahead of time.”
To provide a striking example of risk, Berger, one of the keynote speakers at the congress, shared with the attendees his firm’s experience in carrying out a $250-million project in 2003 to reconstruct 384 km of roadways and bridges in Afghanistan from Kabul to Kandahar. The firm was given an eight-month deadline and the work had to be carried out while military operations were proceeding. In his address, entitled “The Asphalt Ribbon of Afghanistan,” Berger gave considerable attention to his firm’s risk management exercises.
“We had a war going on,” he explains in summarizing his remarks at the conference. “We were working on a road that served thirty percent of the population but we could not enter because it was in the most heavily land-mined country in the world and had been destroyed by war for over thirty years. So there was no construction machinery, no construction industry, no construction workers, and no construction materials. We not only had to resolve the question of how to get equipment, workers, and materials into the country fast enough [to complete the project on time] but we all had to do that in the context of a threat-prone environment.”
Berger says that, after the land mines had been removed from the roads and rock quarries, all of the contractors brought equipment in from outside the country. In some cases it was flown in, and in others it was brought in by road from Pakistan. Berger had to get a special waiver from President Bush for the contractors in Turkey to bring their equipment through Iran.
“We had to modify the standard FIDIC [International Federation of Consulting Engineers] contract,” says Berger. “We were in a war environment, and we could not allow the contractors to exercise the force majeure clauses and shut down their projects. So we prenegotiated stand-down daily rates so that if there was an incident in their area we could tell them to go inside the camp and lock the gate. So we paid them a fixed rate per day; it was prenegotiated rather than let the project be shut down.”
Berger says two important risk management lessons emerged from the project. The first is the importance of ensuring that all project stakeholders have a thorough grasp of the project; the second is the need to fully understand the technical challenges that will be encountered.
“One of the things that helped this project succeed was the very clear imperative from President Bush that the project would be finished by the end of 2003. This was a very focusing factor on all the stakeholders,” says Berger. “But at the same time we had to answer questions: How are you going to bring these materials in? Are you going to be able to mix them on-site? How are you going to train people to use them? Are you going to maintain quality control? Are you going to bring in the workers that are needed? What are you going to do in the interim to staff those things up? Are you going to use river gravel until [you have] a crushing system in place? Can you ramp up security fast enough? Those were some of the real technical challenges we had to answer.”
Other sessions at the congress dealt with project planning and financing; water management; the details of the Panama Canal expansion project; and effective practices for managing large infrastructure projects. Moreover, case histories were presented dealing with transportation systems, dams, and levees.
“The business and finance community learned some decades ago that formal risk management was really important, and I think the civil engineering community has only recently discovered that was true,” says Baecher. “Today there is huge interest in trying to more explicitly understand the enterprise risks that are involved in these large projects. And that means a combination of financial risks but also natural hazard risks and operational risk. ACP is now engaged in a significant enterprise and risk management program to try to characterize the financial, engineering, natural hazard, and operational risks that the canal faces and to integrate these into a risk management plan that balances operations, insurance, and risk transfer to rationalize their operations. In my personal opinion, [the ACP] is doing a superior job in managing the canal. They have an engineering operation that is world class and have been doing a tremendous job.”
Berger says that ASCE is looking forward to honoring the centenary of the Panama Canal by holding its annual conference in Panama City in 2014. “I think that the conference in 2014 is going to be a unique opportunity to demonstrate the globalization of ASCE,” he notes. “I believe that we will have an impressive turnout of Region 10 [international] members because it will be so much more accessible for people from Latin America, the Middle East, Japan, China, just to name a few, and the unique attraction of the engineering marvel of the Panama Canal itself. There are going to be exciting technical tours, and because Panama itself is a fascinating country, there will be wonderful family- and attendee-oriented ecotourism adventures.”