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A CMA CGM containerships transits the Panama Canal

Photo: Panama Canal Authority

Panama Canal Boosts Capacity on Eighth Anniversary of Expansion Project

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 963
June 27, 2024

The Panama Canal is marking the eighth anniversary of its historic expansion program by increasing its draft and daily transits amid an ongoing water crisis.

Effective today, the maximum authorized draft will be raised from 46 to 47 feet (14.33 meters), and is set to increase further to 48 feet (14.063 meters) on July 11th. Also, a new booking slot for the Neopanamax locks will be introduced from August 5th, raising the total daily transits to 35 ships.

The improvements bring the waterway a step closer to its design capacity of around 36-38 transits per day and a 50-foot maximum draft.

For over a year, the Panama Canal has been operating below capacity due to a severe drought, worsened by a strong El Nino. However, with the onset of rainy season, the Panama Canal Authority has been gradually increasing both the number of daily transit numbers and maximum drafts from recent lows of 24 transits and maximum drafts below 44 feet.

The latest modifications follow capacity improvements announced earlier in June, which included an increase in daily transits from 32 to 33 starting July 11th, and again to 34 on July 22nd. The progressive changes are based on the current and forecasted water levels of Gatun Lake and the start of the rainy season in the Panama Canal watershed.

Ricaurte Vásquez Morales, Panama Canal Administrator, notes that this anniversary is unlike previous ones as operations have had to adapt following a recent drought and climate variability impacting water levels at Lakes Gatun and Alhajuela. “In this critical period, we have prioritized the well-being of the population, guaranteeing the supply of drinking water and, on the other hand, ensuring the reliability of the service to our customers,” he said.

The Expanded Canal, inaugurated on June 26, 2016, marked the start of a new era for Panama and global trade, marking the most significant enhancement project since the Canal’s initial opening in 1914.

The Panama Canal expansion not only opened the waterway to larger ships, but also allowed the passage to 90% of the world’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) vessels for the first time, paving the way for booming U.S. LNG exports to Asia.

The expansion has led to a ripple effect on the local and global economy, with ports worldwide expanding to accommodate over 25,000 vessels that have transited the Neopanamax locks since 2016. Between October 2023 and May 2024, 1,799 vessels transited the Expanded Canal, 62.4 percent of which were containerships.

Despite the arrival of the rainy season, water scarcity remains a challenge for the Panama Canal. Addressing climate change effects requires immediate action, such as identifying alternative water sources from Panama’s watersheds and lakes, and increasing storage capacity. These solutions will ensure water availability for the population and the Canal’s operation, contributing to its long-term sustainability.

The Panama Canal is also exploring other short- and long-term solutions to optimize water use and storage at the Canal for the benefit of the local population and its operations.

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