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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Drought is limiting traffic in Panama Canal



A cargo ship passes through a lock of the Panama Canal in Panama on Sept. 11, 2023. The Panama Canal typically handles about 5% of global shipping, but last year it was forced to reduce the number of crossings due to extreme drought. (Nathalia Angarita/The New York Times)

By Mira Rojanasakul


The lake that allows the Panama Canal to function recorded the lowest water level ever for the start of a dry season this year, which means that vastly fewer ships can pass through the canal. The extreme drought, exacerbated by an ongoing El Nino that is affecting Gatún Lake and the whole region appears likely to last into May.


The Panama Canal Authority has reduced daily traffic through the narrow corridor by nearly 40% compared with last year. Many ships have already diverted to longer ocean routes, which increases both costs and carbon emissions, while global shipping company Maersk recently announced they will shift some of their cargo to rail.


Panama typically sees a dry season from January to May, but climate change has made rainfall patterns much less predictable. The result is that the increasingly severe droughts and extreme deluges can push canal infrastructure past its operational limits. Rising temperatures also evaporate a significant amount of moisture from the reservoir and its watershed.


In previous droughts, weight restrictions were imposed because heavier boats risk running aground in the shallower water. The canal typically handles an estimated 5% of seaborne trade, including 46% of the container traffic between the East Coast of the United States and Northeast Asia. But last summer, the Panama Canal Authority began taking the drastic measure of reducing traffic. Toll revenues have dropped by $100 million per month since October.


Each maneuver takes around 50 million gallons from its reservoirs to raise and lower vessels through the locks before spilling into the sea.


“The fact that the Panama Canal operates on freshwater is a major disadvantage compared to other water routes,” Ricaurte Vásquez Morales, the administrator of the Panama Canal Authority, said in a video address in December.


“This is certainly a low input year — one of the lowest, one of the driest on record,” said Joshua Tewksbury, the director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute based in Panama.


But there are two variables when it comes to lake levels: what goes in and what goes out. And demands on water have grown significantly.


Panama’s population has quadrupled since the 1950s, and more than half the country relies on the canal’s reservoirs — Gatún Lake and the smaller Alajuela — for clean drinking water.


“Before it was a very small percentage of total water use, and now it’s the equivalent of four or five lockages per day,” said Gloria Arrocha Paz, a meteorologist at the Panama Canal Authority.


Demand for global shipping has risen steadily since the canal first opened in 1914. Cutting through the narrow isthmus saves thousands of miles on trips that might otherwise need to route around the tip of South America or through the Red Sea, where Houthi attacks have thwarted traffic in recent months.


An expansion completed in 2016 added two new locks to accommodate significantly larger “neo-Panamax” ships, which are bigger, heavier and require deeper water. A previous Times investigation found that canal officials ignored warnings that they would need new sources of water in order for the expansion to succeed.


“All of the demands on that water have increased over the last hundred years and none of the inputs have,” Tewksbury said.


The Panama Canal Authority is also exploring longer term fixes.


The most prominent candidate may be a new reservoir on the Indio River, west of Gatún Lake. But any meaningful next steps will first need to contend with a standing law that prohibits the Panama Canal Authority from constructing reservoirs in watersheds beyond the one that feeds its existing lakes.


The Authority has also looked to Bayano Lake to the east, but tapping it would involve piping the water miles away from a reservoir that also supplies Panama City with hydroelectricity.


Decades of deforestation have degraded the landscape’s potential for absorbing floodwaters. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has been working with the Panama Canal Authority on forest restoration projects and research into which planting strategies best support the forest’s “sponge effect.”


But it may not be enough to meet the pressing demand for cargo traffic through the Panama Canal. What’s happened this year has emphasized the urgency of obtaining more water sources, Arrocha Paz said. “Whatever can be done inside the watershed is not going to be enough for the next 50 years.”

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