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Focus on Panama

Panama Canal takes water saving measures in face of ‘unprecedented drought’

Photo: ACP Containerships transiting the Panama Canal
With draught restrictions already in place the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is implementing water saving procedures as it battles one of the worst droughts the waterway has seen.

The arrival of the “El Nino’ phenomenon could worsen the drought making economic impact unavoidable based of current estimates warned the ACP.

The last period of intense drought in the Canal took place in 2019 – 2020. These cycles, Panama Canal administrator Ricaurte Vasquez said, have historically happened once every five years.  “Still, what we are experiencing now is that these events are being reduced to once every three years,” he added.

The climate emergency decreed by the Panamanian government reinforces what the Panama Canal has been stating regarding the reality of a shortage of fresh water, the ACP said.

“This is an issue that the Panama Canal has been warning and preparing for; however, we could not have predicted exactly when the water shortage would occur to the degree that we are experiencing now,” said Vasquez.

The ACP described this year’s drought as “unprecedented” and 2023 has so far been the driest year on record since 1950.

 “We have implemented procedures such as cross-fillings, cross-spilling and short chamber lockages in the Panama locks and increased the use of water-saving basins in the Neopanamax locks,” the administrator added.

“Additionally, we have minimised direction changes between northbound and southbound transits in Gatun locks, maximised tandem lockages and have suspended hydroelectric power generation, among other controls,” he said.

Under normal conditions, the canal operates with a draught of 15.24 metres. However, in early May, the ACP adjusted the draught limits for neo-Panamax locks, to a draught of up to 13.56 metres, with a further reduction to 13.4 metres on 30 May. The draught restrictions reduce the volume of cargo that vessels can carry through the key waterway, and the ACP said a “limited number” of ships had had to lower their draught to comply with restrictions.

It requires 200m litres of water to allow the passage of a single vessel along the canal, water that is largely generated from Lake Gatun in the centre of the waterway, which is drying up fast.

Readers can view current Gatun Lake levels here