Faced with drought, the Panama Canal restricts the passage of ships for a year

Aerial view of cargo ships waiting to access the Panama Canal, August 23, 2023 in the Bay of Panama (Luis ACOSTA)

Aerial view of cargo ships waiting to access the Panama Canal, August 23, 2023 in the Bay of Panama (Luis ACOSTA)

Access to the Panama Canal, a passageway for freight ships between the Atlantic and the Pacific, will be reduced for a year due to the lack of rain, a consequence of climate change and the El Niño phenomenon.

Since July 30, the number of vessels allowed each day has decreased from 40 to 32, and their draft (the height of the submerged part of the boat) has been reduced to 44 feet (13.4 meters).

“Today we plan (to extend these measures) for a year, unless in September, October and November heavy rains fall in the canal catchment area and fill the lakes,” he told AFP. Ilya Espino, Assistant Channel Administrator.

This announcement should allow channel customers to better “plan” their future passages, she added.

The restrictions have indeed had a spectacular consequence: traffic jams of ships, waiting, on both sides of the canal, to be able to cross. There were 130 on Thursday, a number that rose to 160 during August.

The waiting time has skyrocketed: previously three to five days, it reached up to 19 days to return to 11 today.

“We easily manage a queue of 90 ships” but “130 or 140, that causes us problems and causes delays”, recognizes Ms Espino.

The crisis even prompted Colombian President Gustavo Petro to believe that the canal was closed, which his Panamanian counterpart refuted.

“We have restrictions in Panama like we’ve had before, but the canal isn’t closed, that’s not true,” Laurentino Cortizo said on Wednesday.

– “Exponential consumption” –

80 kilometers long, the canal offers direct access between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, which makes it possible to circumvent the South American continent. 6% of world maritime trade passes through it: the main countries using it are the United States, China and Japan.

Rainwater is currently essential to move ships through the locks (up to 26 meters above sea level), so that they can pass through the continental mountain range of the isthmus.

For each boat it is necessary to dump around 200 million liters of fresh water, which the canal obtains from a watershed formed by the Gatún and Alajuela lakes.

Not only is this basin currently suffering from the lack of rain, but it must continue to be able to supply drinking water to half of the country’s 4.2 million inhabitants.

“We have to find solutions so that we can continue to be a primary channel of international trade. If we don’t adapt, we will die,” said channel administrator Ricaurte Vasquez recently.

According to former channel administrator Jorge Quijano, interviewed by AFP, “for the moment the situation is manageable, but we must show the industry that we are taking definitive measures to solve the problem” because “there is has an exponential consumption”, both of humans and of the canal itself, “for which two reservoirs (lakes) have been built”.

For the time being, the reduction in draft translates into a drop in the loading capacity of each ship, and therefore in the income that Panama derives from the payment of tolls by container ships.

For 2024, the Canal Authority predicts that the number of tonnes of goods passing through the isthmus will be “less than 500 million”, compared to 518 million in 2022.

That is an expected drop in revenue of around 200 million dollars, out of a total turnover from tolls which had reached more than 3 billion dollars last year.

“It’s a situation that will last a year, so I don’t think it can be worse than what we experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Ms. Espino.


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