Panama City, Jul 30 (EFE).- The recent lack of rain has forced the Panama Canal to reduce the number of vessels that may pass through the interoceanic waterway each day to 32 starting on Sunday, a move that, in addition to reducing the Canal’s revenue, which is a key element in funding the country’s public coffers, will predictably increase the local maritime traffic jam.
The measure came into force just after midnight, when, like normal, some 50 vessels were in Panama Bay, on the Pacific Ocean side, waiting their turns to pass through the Canal, which lights up the horizon like a coastal city.
It’s important to note that a reduction in the number of daily transits over a prolonged period will increase the waiting time for some vessels, particularly those that don’t make a reservation to cross, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) warned in the announcement of the move issued last week.
Under normal circumstances, an average of 35-36 vessels transit the Canal each day, as Canal administrator Ricaurte Vasquez explained last month, so the new measure translates into a reduction of between three and four ships per day.
“There’s water (for the locks), but nowhere to store it,” a Canal worker told EFE at the original Miraflores locks, which have been in operation since the inauguration of the Canal in 1914 after it was constructed by the United States.
On Sunday morning, one of the vessels that passed through the locks was a Panamanian-flagged bulk carrier, and in about an hour, after paying the transit fee of some $150,000, it moved into the first lock guided by tugboats after which the large gates closed and the lock filled with water.
The ship ascended through the set of locks to a height of some 27 meters (about 89 feet) above the sea level of the Pacific Ocean, and then sailed for eight to 10 hours until it reached the Caribbean.
The Panama Canal is a vital connection point for 180 maritime routes that link 1,920 ports in 170 countries. About 3 percent of the world’s trade passes through it each year and during Fiscal Year 2022, the Canal provided an historic revenue amount of $2.494 billion to the Panamanian government.
In the announcement of the new restrictions “until further notice,” the Canal Authority specified that each day 22 ships will be allowed to pass through the Miraflores Panamax locks and 10 will pass through the larger Neopanamax locks, the latter of which were inaugurated in 2016 after the long-planned expansion of the Canal to accommodate more and larger vessels.
Panama’s climate dynamics on the Pacific side are governed by a rainy season and a dry season with – during a normal yearly cycle – the former beginning in May lasting approximately until November, and the latter lasting from December to April. On the Caribbean side, however, it rains almost all year.
The ACP explained that the new measure was necessary despite the “arrival of the rainy season” on the Isthmus of Panama and the ongoing water conservation measures the ACP has implemented in recent months to mitigate the “adverse effects” of the prolonged dry season in the Canal basin.
With more than 14,000 ships transiting the Canal each year, the waterway is fed by the Gatun (1913) and Alhajuela (1935) artificial lakes, which also supply water to Panama City, its metropolitan area and hinterland, where nearly half the country’s population of 4.2 million live.
But the water supplied to the Canal by these lakes is insufficient, and authorities need to find new water storage sites in a country that has the world’s fifth largest amount of yearly rainfall and is No. 1 in Central America in this regard.
And Panama is certainly not immune to the effects of the climate crisis.
The manager of the Canal’s Water Division, Erick Cordoba, said that – according to the Canal’s internal publication “El Faro” – an “extensive dry season” is presently being experienced, with it being five-and-a-half months since any significant rainfall has been registered in the Canal basin, that period being just two weeks shorter than the longest dry season on record.
Consequently, Cordoba noted, “We’d face a very difficult 2024 if the lakes’ (water) level does not recover, after all the liquid that we’ve had to use in recent months” with “almost zero” rainfall.