The Panama Canal marks the 7th anniversary of the expansion project and faces a major challenge Ship’s crew

The Panama Canal Authority marks the seventh anniversary of the opening of its expanded Neopanamax locks and faces perhaps its greatest challenge yet: a severe drought.

Since the inauguration of the larger locks on June 26, 2016, over 20,600 ships have passed through the expanded Panama Canal. This expansion project, the largest since the waterway’s original opening in 1914, has revolutionized shipping, accommodating not only larger vessels but also new types of vessels such as LNG tankers, facilitating the United States’ rise to become one of the world’s largest exporters Natural gas.

The Neopanamax locks were originally designed for ships with a maximum capacity of 12,600 TEUs (Twenty Foot Equivalent Units). However, the Panama Canal Authority quickly exceeded this limit by allowing the passage of larger capacity container ships. Currently the MV ZephyrWith a capacity of over 16,000 TEU, it holds the record as the largest container ship to use the waterway.

The Neopanamax locks now account for over 50 percent of the Panama Canal’s total tonnage, which equates to more than 270 million Panama Canal tonnes (PC/UMS) transported between June 2022 and May 2023.

Nonetheless, this seventh anniversary brings with it significant water availability and climate challenges as normal canal operations are disrupted by an historic drought, forcing the Panama Canal Authority to impose strict draft restrictions and the size and quantity of vessels using the canal Limiting charge can wear.

The last decade has seen prolonged dry spells along the Panama Canal, the second and fifth driest years in over 70 years. The month of May 2023 was the driest since 1950 and exacerbated the ongoing water shortages in the Panama Canal watershed with direct impact on the operations of the Neopanamax locks.

In response to the falling water level in Gatun Lake, the Panama Canal Authority has imposed a series of increasingly stringent draft restrictions since the beginning of this year. Currently, ships passing through the Neopanamax locks are permitted a maximum draft of 44 feet, which is significantly less than the originally planned maximum draft of 50 feet.

Though recent rains have temporarily delayed the entry into force of additional draft restrictions, concerns about the potential impact of this year’s El Niño on weather conditions — and a worsening drought — are high. The Panama Canal Authority is now warning that the economic consequences of the drought are unavoidable.

To conserve water, the Panama Canal Authority has implemented several water-saving measures to make it easier to fill the reservoirs during the rainy months. These measures are aimed at facilitating water reclamation in the surrounding lakes and ensuring sufficient resources for human consumption without affecting canal operations.

“The Panama Canal is closely monitoring the development of weather events affecting water availability in the Canal’s watershed, which are projected to worsen with the arrival of the El Niño phenomenon,” the Panama Canal Authority said on Monday.

At the moment there is not much the shipping industry can do other than hope for rain and make contingency plans should the situation deteriorate.

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