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 another year, unless in September, October and November heavy rains fall in the canal catchment area and fill the lakes,” said the AFP Ilya Espino, deputy administrator of the channel.
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”, admits Mme 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 is not closed, that’s not true,” Laurentino Cortizo said on Wednesday.
New water sources
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.
This situation pushes the people in charge of the canal to carry out studies to find new sources of water.
“We need to find solutions so that we can continue to be a primary channel for international trade. If we don’t adapt, we will die,” channel administrator Ricaurte Vásquez said recently.
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 of 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”, insisted on tempering Mme Espino.