Drought threatens the world’s most important shipping route. The lack of rain has forced the Panama Canal to reduce maritime traffic. The water supply crisis threatens the future of the passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
About six percent of all global shipping goes through the canal, mostly from the US, China and Japan. For the fifth time in this dry season, which runs from January to May, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) has had to limit the passage of larger ships.
Alajuela and Gatún are the two artificial lakes that supply water to the Panama Canal. Around 200 million liters of water is required to flow through a series of stepped locks out to sea for each ship to pass through.
Rainwater is the source of these reserves that feed the locks, which can reach up to 26 meters above sea level.
The ACP says that from March 21 to April 21, water levels in Alhajuela dropped seven meters, more than 10 percent.
“The lack of rain impacts several things, the first is the reduction of our water reserves,” Erick Córdoba, ACP water manager, told AFP.
It also affects businesses “with the reduction in the draft of Neopanamax vessels, which are the largest vessels that transit through the canal” and the ones that pay the most tolls, he adds.
In 2022, more than 14,000 ships with 518 million tons of cargo transited through the waterway, contributing 2.5 billion dollars (2.3 billion euros) to the Panamanian treasury.
The canal’s administrator, Ricaurte Vásquez, recently acknowledged to the Panamanian website SNIP Noticias that water scarcity was the main threat to navigation in the canal.
In 2019, freshwater supplies were reduced to just 3 billion cubic meters, well below the 5.25 billion needed to operate the canal.
He has sounded alarm bells for authorities who fear the uncertainty could lead shipping companies to favor other routes. The water crisis also has them looking for solutions.
“Without a new reservoir that brings in new volumes of water, this situation will take away the canal’s capacity for growth,” former administrator Jorge Quijano told AFP.
“It is vital to find new sources of water, especially in the face of climate change that we are seeing, not only in our country but throughout the world.”
However, the water crisis does not only affect the canal. The shortage has caused supply problems in various parts of Panama and has sparked a series of protests.
Experts warn that water scarcity could lead to water conflicts between the canal and local populations.
“We don’t want to get into a philosophical conflict about water for Panamanians or water for international trade,” Vásquez said.
The canal has suffered “a lack of rain like the one we have had throughout the country, but within the parameters of a normal dry period,” Luz de Calzadilla, general manager of the Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology, told AFP. from Panama.
But the El Niño weather phenomenon is likely to reduce rainfall in the second half of the year, Calzadilla adds.
He says there is a responsibility by law to prioritize drinking water over business, but the canal administration “works magic” to keep the balance.
This is little consolation for those facing water shortages in Lake Alajuela.
“Alajuela has less water every day,” Leidin Guevara, 43, who fishes in the lake, told AFP.
“This year has been the most difficult I’ve seen because of the drought.”