MANAGUA (Reuters) - Construction of Nicaragua's $50 billion Interoceanic Grand Canal, expected to rival the Panama Canal, will begin Dec. 22 after feasibility studies have been approved, the committee overseeing the project said on Thursday.
The route suggested for the 172-mile (278-km) canal, which would be longer, deeper and wider than the Panama Canal, was approved in July. Construction will be led by Hong Kong-based HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co Ltd (HKND Group).
Opponents of the plan are concerned about the canal's effect on Lake Nicaragua, an important fresh water source for the country, as well as the impact on poorer communities. The new canal would run about 500 miles (805 km) to the southeast of the Panama Canal.
Committee member Telemaco Talavera said the feasibility studies were expected to be approved next month. The plan is to finish the canal within five years, with it becoming operational around 2020.
Officials said some small adjustments were being made to the overall project, including dredging stretches of a lake rather than using underwater explosives.
The proposed canal would pass through Lake Nicaragua, Central America's largest lake, and will be between 230 meters and 520 meters (755 feet to 1,706 feet) wide and 27.6 meters (90 feet) deep, HKND has said.
Chinese businessman Wang Jing is behind the canal plan, though he has no prior experience developing or financing big infrastructure projects like the planned canal.
Wang only established Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co (HKND) in August 2012, prompting some to question whether the project was viable.
(Reporting by Ivan Castro; Writing by Christine Murray and Simon Gardner; Editing by Alan Crosby)