The Panama Canal may have to further reduce the number of ships it allows to pass through each day if the current drought continues. The canal has already implemented restrictions on ship drafts and daily passage permits to save water. As a result, many ships have had to reduce their loads and freight costs have increased. Currently, up to 32 ships are allowed to pass through the canal each day, compared to the normal 36. The maximum draft of ships has also been limited from 50 feet to 44 feet. To ease the bottleneck, the canal has made changes to its reservation system to allow more unbooked ships to pass through and prioritize those that have been waiting the longest.
There are currently 116 ships waiting to transit through the canal, down from over 160 in early August. The maximum waiting time has also decreased from 21 days to 14 days. Panama Canal Authority head Ricaurte Vasquez stated that the canal would reduce daily transits if necessary instead of making another cut to authorized vessel draft. However, the canal has included possible cuts to 30-31 daily transits in its budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
The recent severe El Niño weather phenomenon has caused a drought, leading to lower water levels in Gatun Lake, which supplies water to the canal. If the drought continues for longer than 12 months, the canal may have to implement even more restrictions. Plans are underway to secure enough water for the canal by changing the way water flows to Lake Gatun and constructing additional reservoirs. Experts warn that disruptions in maritime trade could occur, especially with a predicted drier period next year.