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Drought hit Panama Canal further restricts maximum ship depth

A bulk carrier transits the Cocoli Locks at the Panama Canal, on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama April 19, 2023. REUTERS/Aris Martinez/File Photo

Panama Canal Plans to Normalize by 2025, Weather Permitting

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 1968
April 11, 2024

As the dry season draws to a close, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is adjusting its operations to align with the climate conditions.

Taking into account the current and projected water level of Gatun Lake, the ACP has increased the number of transit slots from 24 to 27 per day, effective from March 25. The ACP attributed the improvement to the implementation of its Operational Water Strategy and recent progress in water-saving initiatives.

The ACP is optimistic that steady rainfall will begin by late April and continue for several months. Assuming these forecasts hold true, the ACP plans to gradually relax transit restrictions with the goal of fully normalizing operations—meaning 36 daily transits and 50-foot max. draft—by 2025.

Panama Canal rainfall chart
Chart courtesy Panama Canal Authority

Nonetheless, any modifications to these restrictions hinge on actual rainfall patterns; if precipitation falls short of expectations, the ACP may need to maintain or even tighten constraints on daily passage numbers or maximum allowable draft. A weakening El Nino and shift to La Nina this summer could help things along, but above-average rainfall is anything but guaranteed.

Addressing water challenges, the ACP is focusing on a range of short-term and long-term solutions. A key priority is the development of a robust water management system. Despite exploring multiple potential solutions, it has been acknowledged that measures within the Canal’s jurisdiction alone are insufficient to meet the growing water demand. As a result, the ACP is seeking solutions outside the Panama Canal Watershed.

The Canal’s Board of Directors has presented a proposal to the Panamanian government centered on defining the Canal Watershed and amending or expanding the limits set by Panamanian law in 2006. It also includes a request to remove restrictions hindering the construction of a new reservoir.

While awaiting the government’s response, the ACP continues to implement water-saving measures and develop short-term strategies to optimize water use and storage. “The Panama Canal is ready to advance the process and develop long-term solutions as soon as possible,” the ACP said.

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