Panama City. Kasia Chavez was photographed with a huge cruise ship behind her under the scorching sun. She smiled, oblivious to the crisis the Panama Canal faces due to this year’s ongoing drought, or even the ongoing projects to keep the water needed to operate the road.
The tourist, a 35-year-old Peruvian accountant, greeted passengers on the observation deck of the Miraflores lock. The cruise ship was one of 24 ships crossing the canal that day. Previously, about 40 people passed through in a day.
A lack of rainfall caused by El Niño, combined with global warming, has forced canal authorities to reduce traffic and lower ship drafts to 44 feet (13.4 meters), two feet less than previously allowed.
“Today, these 24 (daily crossings) will continue until at least April, and what happens in May will depend on Rainfall conditions.”
This 80-kilometer strategic route connecting the Pacific and Caribbean Sea accounts for 6% of the world’s maritime trade volume. Its main users are the United States, China and Japan.
The Panama Canal uses rainwater harvested from the Gatun artificial lake in the north of the country. Every passing ship releases approximately 200 million liters of fresh water.
“Changing weather patterns are affecting us like they’ve never affected us before,” Espino added.
Last year was the second dry year in the history of the canal, which was opened by the United States in 1914. Forecasts for early 2024 are also not optimistic.
Luz Graciela de Calsadilla, director of the Panama Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology, told AFP there was “almost an 80 percent chance” that El Niño would continue “through February, March and April.” quarter”.
He added that, according to his agency’s research, “the basin surrounding the canal” suffered a “severe meteorological drought.”
The situation is complicated because the waterway’s basin supplies water to nearly half of Panaman’s 4.2 million people.
Alarms are also being raised with the construction of new water treatment plants (already planned) that will compete with the canal for water.
“We must act now”
The Panama Canal Authority, an autonomous government entity, is advancing several palliative water conservation programs. But in the long term, he hopes to build a dam on the Indio River west of the highway.
Espino believes: “It is important to send a signal to the maritime industry that Panama will solve the water problem.”
The project has been promoted since 2017 and can add up to 16 locks per day. However, to implement the plan, the channel needs legal reforms or government approval and ends its functions on June 30.
The plan includes relocation and compensation but has not yet started, in part because of the potential political costs of the impact on Indio Creek’s more than 2,000 residents in the middle of an election year.
Canal Affairs Minister Aristides Royo warned there would be no reservoir “if the inhabitants of the Indio River object”, causing more unrest in some areas.
Adolfo Fabrega, president of the Panamanian Chamber of Commerce, said this week: “Inaction has consequences for the entire country and we choose the authorities not to make easy decisions but to take action.”
“We have to act and we have to act now,” Jorge Quijano, a former administrator of the Panama route, told AFP.
Given the uncertainty, some shipping lines have decided to transport cargo via alternative routes. Denmark’s Maersk Group, one of the world’s most important shipping companies, announced days ago that ships operating between Oceania and the Americas will begin to avoid transiting the canal.
“When the water supply returns, I think most customers will be happy and will come back. Few are leaving, but they are leaving out of necessity,” Espino explained.
Quijano warned, however, that “people are looking for other alternatives.”
“Not that many cargo ships want to go through the canal because they can’t book transit,” he added.
Meanwhile, hundreds of tourists, like Peruvian accountants, continue to arrive at the Miraflores Locks to see how the impressive work of modern engineering works. “It exceeded my expectations and left a deep impression on me,” Chavez told AFP.