The drought-stricken Panama Canal prepares for the effects of El Niño Ship’s crew

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is closely monitoring the development of climatic events that could affect water availability in the region and navigation through the critical waterway.

Experts predict the imminent arrival of the El Niño phenomenon, which could trigger an early onset of the rainy season in 2024 and exacerbate the ongoing water shortage in the Panama Canal watershed, which has already forced the AKP to lower the maximum draft of ships, passing through the extended waterway Neopanamax locks.

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As a preventive measure, the AKP has implemented a series of water conservation strategies aimed at restoring the level of Gatun Lake to ensure adequate water supplies for both human populations and smooth shipping traffic along the interoceanic route. However, officials acknowledge that these measures may not fully mitigate the economic impact of water shortages.

“The freshwater shortage is real and something we have been warning about for many years,” said Panama Canal Authority administrator Ricaurte Vásquez Morales. He cited the recent intensification of droughts, with the last severe drought in the region occurring in 2019-2020.

Vásquez Morales notes that drought cycles that used to repeat themselves every five years now seem to occur every three years.

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Recent data suggests that the past decade has been marked by extended dry spells, including the second and fifth driest years in the past 72 years. The month of May 2023 was the driest since 1950, a situation exacerbated by the operation of the Neopanamax locks.

“In the Panamax locks we built cross locks, which means we combine the water from one side of a lock to the other,” explained Vásquez Morales. “In addition, we have planned the passages in such a way that we can use the same water availability in each chamber as far as possible for the passage of other ships. As for the Neopanamax locks, we are checking the passage direction and timing of the north and south ships to make the best use of the water.”

Since 2020, the Panama Canal Authority has also focused on its water program with the aim of identifying and developing long-term solutions to the water problem. However, should drought conditions continue to worsen, the Panama Canal Authority may need to limit the number of daily transits.

“Currently we transport between 35 and 36 ships per day; we would have to reduce to 32 and 28 transits per day,” said Vásquez Morales.

Although the canal traffic has not yet been completely affected, there is already a significant reduction in the number of ships arriving via the Panama Canal. Vásquez Morales explains that the decline in transits coincides with the time of year when historically fewer ships arrive. Further analysis is underway to determine whether this is a seasonal trend or an indication of a shift in shipping trade routes.

“The situation we are witnessing should make us aware of the urgency it represents for the country, the Panama Canal and for all Panamanians to discuss how climate impacts are affecting, particularly the availability of water to support the population and to meet the needs of the various economic sectors of the country,” the Panama Canal Authority said in a statement.

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