Panama Canal: Drought threatens one of the world’s most important shipping lanes

Adriana Lima
By Adriana Lima 6 Min Read
origin 1A vessel is guided through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal near Panama City. © Luis ACOSTA / AFP

Lack of rainfall forced the Panama Canal to reduce shipping traffic.

The water supply crisis is threatening the future of this important shipping route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

About six percent of all global shipping passes through the canal, mainly from the United States, China and Japan. For the fifth time this Drought season, which runs from January to May, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) had to limit the transit of larger ships.

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How has the drought affected the Panama Canal?

Alajuela and Gatun are the two artificial lakes that supply water to the Panama Canal. It takes about 200 million liters of water to flow through a series of tiered locks into the sea for every ship to pass through.

Rainwater is the source of these reserves which feed the locks, which can reach up to 26 meters above sea level.

The ACP says that from March 21 to April 21, the water level in Alhajuela dropped seven meters, more than 10%.

“The lack of rainfall has an impact on several things, the first being the reduction of our water supplies,” ACP water manager Erick Cordoba told AFP.

It also affects the business “with the reduction of the draft of the Neopanamax vessels, which are the largest vessels that transit the canal” and those that pay the most tolls, he adds.

In 2022, more than 14,000 ships carrying 518 million tons of cargo passed through the waterway, contributing $2.5 billion (€2.3 billion) to the Panamanian treasury.

origin 1Boats stranded in Alajuela lake during the summer drought, in the province of Colon, 50km north of Panama City, Panama.LUIS ACOSTA/AFP

The authorities are looking for solutions

Canal administrator Ricaurte Vasquez recently acknowledged to Panamanian website SNIP Noticias that water scarcity was the main threat to shipping in the channel.

In 2019, freshwater supplies fell to just three billion cubic meters, well short of the 5.25 billion needed to operate the canal.

It has set alarm bells ringing for authorities who fear the uncertainty could lead shipping companies to favor other routes. The water crisis also pushes them to look for solutions.

It is essential to find new sources of water, especially in the face of climate change that we are seeing, not only in our country but throughout the world.

“Without a new reservoir bringing in new volumes of water, this situation will eliminate the canal’s growing capacity,” former administrator Jorge Quijano told AFP.

“It is essential to find new sources of water, especially in the face of climate change that we are seeing, not only in our country but throughout the world.”

THE water crisis it’s not just about the channel, however. The shortage has led to supply problems in several parts of Panama and has resulted in a number of protests.

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Experts warn that water shortages could lead to conflicts

Experts warn it could cause water conflicts between the canal and the local populations.

“We don’t want to engage in a philosophical conflict about water for Panamanians or water for international trade,” Vasquez said.

The channel has been suffering from “a lack of rain like we’ve had throughout the country, but within the parameters of what is a normal dry period,” Luz de Calzadilla, director general of of Panama institute of meteorology and hydrology, he told AFP.

But the El Nino climate phenomenon it’s likely to reduce rainfall in the second half of the year, Calzadilla adds.

He says there is a legal responsibility to prioritize drinking water over business, but the canal administration is “working magic” to keep the balance.

It’s a small comfort to those coping with water shortages on Lake Alajuela.

“Alajuela has less water every day,” Leidin Guevara, 43, who fishes the lake, told AFP.

“This year has been the hardest I’ve ever seen because of drought.”

Watch the video above to see how water shortages are affecting the Panama Canal.

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