The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) has warned that the “El Niño” phenomenon could worsen the current drought and lead to significant economic impacts. The canal experienced an intense drought between 2019 and 2020, with such occurrences usually taking place every five years. However, Ricaurte Vasquez, administrator of the Panama Canal, said that events of this nature are now happening every three years. The ACP noted that 2023 was the driest year since 1950, and the drought this year is “unprecedented”.
The Panamanian government has declared a climate emergency, underscoring the ACP’s claims of a freshwater shortage. The canal authority had instituted measures such as cross-filling and increased use of water-saving basins in the Neopanamax locks. Changes in the direction of passage of ships have also been made in the Gatun Locks, with hydroelectric power generation suspended. Vasquez added that they have been preparing for the freshwater shortage, but the “scale we are experiencing now” was beyond their prediction.
The canal’s draft under normal conditions is 15.24 meters, but restrictions have been put in place due to the reduced volume of water, which is mainly sourced from Gatun Lake. The ACP lowered the draft limits for Neo-Panamax locks from 15.24 meters to 13.4 meters in May. With 200 million liters of water required for a single ship to pass through the canal, the draft limits reduce the volume of cargo ships can carry, and some have been forced to comply with the restrictions. The ACP has emphasized the need for a significant rethink on water usage in the region.
In conclusion, the Panama Canal is facing unprecedented droughts, and future weather patterns could exacerbate the situation. The ACP’s efforts to prepare for water scarcity include instituting measures such as cross-filling and suspending hydroelectric power generation. These are in addition to changes made to the direction of passage and increased use of water-saving basins in the locks. With the current draft limits in effect, the amount of cargo shipped through the canal will be reduced. The ACP has urged the region to rethink water usage to protect this vital waterway.
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