What Panama’s Worst Drought Means for Its Canal’s Future

Panama’s Worst Drought Hints at the Future of Its Canal

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A severe drought in Panama has resulted in lower water levels in the Panama Canal, forcing some shippers to limit the amount of cargo their largest ships carry so they can safely navigate the waterway.

“The last five months have been the driest dry season in the history of the canal,” said Carlos Vargas, the Panama Canal Authority’s executive vice president for environment, water and energy.

The canal — an engineering masterwork that provides a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific — handles about 5 percent of maritime trade. Any hiccup in its operation can ripple through the global economy and affect the United States, the origin or destination for much of the canal’s traffic. And those problems may become more commonplace as the climate changes.

Earlier this year, the authority imposed draft limits on ships, forcing some to lighten their loads to ride higher in the water so they will not run aground.

The authority imposed the limits in February, as the drought took hold and levels in the two lakes that supply water to the canal began to fall. The limits affected only very large ships using the canal’s newest locks, which opened in 2016. An average of about seven ships a day use those locks.

The canal authority posts the restrictions well in advance, so shippers can calculate loads that will enable their ships to transit the 50-mile canal. Otherwise excess cargo has to be off-loaded in Panama.

Since the February announcement, the maximum allowable draft has been reduced five times. As of May 28 the maximum will be 43 feet, seven feet lower than usual.

Mr. Vargas said that as of that date smaller ships that use the canal’s old locks will also be affected, as the maximum allowable draft for those locks will fall from 39 and a half feet to 38 and a half. About 25 ships use the old locks every day.

Because canal tariffs are based partly on cargo loads, the limits have so far cost the canal authority about $15 million, a relatively small amount when compared with overall revenues of more than $2 billion a year.

Mr. Vargas said the restrictions will be lifted gradually, probably beginning in June. By mid-September, he said, even ships with the deepest drafts should be able to use the waterway without having to reduce their cargo.

Draft restrictions have been imposed before, during previous El Niño years, and have sometimes caused greater revenue losses. Dr. Stallard said the impact of the drought this year was reduced in part because of heavy rains last fall.

Managing water has always been a critical part of canal operations, but became even more important with the construction of the larger locks. Each time a ship transits the canal about 50 million gallons of fresh water are lost through the locks to the oceans.

That water comes from the two artificial lakes, Gatún — through which ships pass as part of the canal — and Alajuela. The lakes also provide water for much of Panama’s growing population.

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