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Shipping traffic at the Panama Canal is under threat due to drought


A ship passing through the Miraflores lock in the Panama Canal.

Drought has forced Panamanian authorities to reduce shipping in the canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as a water supply crisis threatens the future of this vital waterway.

Two man-made lakes feeding the canal in Kowloon County have been drained due to lack of rain.

“This Hajuela lake is getting less water every day,” Leiden Guevara, 43, who fishes in the lake, told AFP.

The Panamanian Canal Authority (ACP) has scheduled the largest ships to pass through the canal for the fifth time during this dry season.

About six percent of global shipping passes through the canal, mostly from the United States, China and Japan.

Rainwater is the energy source used in the Panama Canal to move ships through the locks, up to 26 meters above sea level.

Each boat’s passage involves 200 million liters of fresh water flowing into the sea, making Lakes Hajuela and Gatun vital.

According to the ACP, between March 21 and April 21 the Alhajuela sea level fell by seven meters – more than 10%.

“The lack of rain affects in different ways, first in reducing our water reserves,” Eric Cordoba, director of water for the ACP, told AFP.

Cordoba added that this affects the work of the canal with the largest ships that pay the highest fees and is prevented from passing.

In fiscal 2022, more than 14,000 ships carrying 518 million tons of cargo passed through the canal, contributing $2.5 billion to the Panamanian treasury.

The locks on the Panama Canal can transport ships up to 26 meters above sea level

The locks on the Panama Canal can transport ships up to 26 meters above sea level.

‘Vital to find new water sources’

Already alarm bells were sounded in 2019 when fresh water supplies fell to just three billion cubic meters, less than the 5.25 billion cubic meters needed to operate the canal.

Authorities fear that this operational uncertainty may lead some shipping companies to prefer other routes, increasing the need for solutions to ensure the canal’s long-term operations.

Canal director Ricaurte Vasquez recently admitted to Panamanian SNIP Noticias that water shortages were the main threat to shipping in the canal.

“Without a new reservoir that brings new volumes of water, this situation will take away the canal’s ability to grow,” former canal director Jorge Quijano told AFP.

“It is necessary to find new sources of water, especially in the face of the climate change that we are witnessing, not only in our country but all over the world.”

The Panama Canal Basin also supplies water to more than half of the country’s 4.3 million people.

  • The Colón Province of Panama has suffered from a drought

    The Colón Province of Panama has suffered from a drought.

  • Map of Panama and the Gatun and Hajuela lakes that supply the Panama Canal

    Map of Panama and the Gatun and Hajuela lakes that supply the Panama Canal.

The shortage caused water supply problems in several parts of the country, sparking numerous protests.

Experts warn that water conflicts could arise between the canal and the local population given the uncontrolled urbanization developing around Panama City.

“We don’t want to get into a philosophical conflict over water for Panama or water for international trade,” Vazquez said.

Luz de Calzadilla, director general of Panama’s Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology, told AFP the canal had suffered from “a scarcity of rain, as it has in the whole country, but within the limits of a normal dry period.”

However, El Niño weather is likely to reduce precipitation in the second half of the year, de Calzadilla added.

“The truth is that the management of the canal works magically to maintain business and fulfill a social responsibility such as drinking water for human consumption.”

This is no consolation for those facing a water shortage in Lake Hajuela.

“This year has been the most difficult drought I have ever seen,” Guevara said.

© 2023 AFP

the quote: Drought Threatens Panama Canal Shipping (2023, April 26) Retrieved April 26, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-04-drough-threatens-panama-canal-shipping.html

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