Panama Canal Increases Ship Transit, Although Water Shortage Persists

    The measure was notified to shipping companies on April 15, but it came into force now. From June 1st, 32 ships will be able to navigate the channel

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    The Panama Canal increased its number of daily ship transits this Thursday, although the water deficit that led last year to restrict the number of crossings and the draft of ships persists, authorities reported.

    This interoceanic waterway that moves 6% of world maritime trade, inaugurated by the United States in 1914, began to apply restrictions in April 2023 due to the lack of rain caused by the El Niño phenomenon.

    But now the daily crossing of boats has been extended from 27 to 31, thanks to the increase in the level of the two artificial lakes that supply fresh water to the 80 km long channel that connects the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic.

    “We can now announce with some approval from the international maritime community that we are going to move to 31 transits,” the vice president of Canal Operations, Boris Moreno, confirmed.“It is good news for the Channel and for the users as well,” he stated.

    The measure was notified to shipping companies on April 15, but it came into force now. From June 1, 32 ships will be able to navigate the channel.In addition, starting June 15, the maximum draft allowed for ships passing through the largest locks, opened in 2016, will be 13.71 meters (45 feet), instead of the current 13.41 meters (44 feet).

    “In the coming months we will be announcing gradual increases in capacity and we think that by the end of this year 24 we could be at normal traffic levels,” Moreno said.

    Auction record

    The Panamanian route does not use seawater, like the Suez Canal, and through the passage of each ship, about 200 million liters of fresh water are poured into the sea, which is stored in the Gatún lakes (450 km/2) and Alhajuela (50 km/2).

    Before the crisis, 39 ships crossed a day on average. At the most critical moment in 2023 the number fell to 22, so up to 160 ships accumulated waiting to cross. Now the figure ranges between 50 and 60, Moreno said.

    The reduction in transit led some shipping companies to spend more money to get a crossing slot in the auctions organized by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP). One ship paid four million dollars for a spot, in addition to the toll.The main users of the Canal are the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Chile.

    Waiting for more rain

     The Canal basin, with eight main rivers, also supplies drinking water to 58% of the country’s 4.4 million inhabitants.From the 2,800 millimeters of rain that previously fell each year on average, it dropped to just 1,800 mm in 2023, hydrologist Ricardo Güete explained to AFP, during an inspection of monitoring stations in Gatun Lake.

    However, some sporadic rains and the restrictive measures adopted by the ACP to save water have allowed the level of the lakes to rise, although without yet reaching the levels necessary to operate normally.“We are four or five feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) below the conditions or levels that we should have,” Güete said.

    The situation should improve during the rainy season, which runs from May to November, as the La Niña phenomenon is forecast, which implies more rainfall in the country, said the hydrologist.

    “We hope that during this month […] the rains will begin to fall, and that the situation will normalize,” said Güete.He explained that “although last year was not the most critical El Niño, it was (it was) in terms of water availability, due to the operation of the new locks, the increase in population and greater evaporation due to global warming.”

     “Selling certainty”

    The ACP is studying incorporating new water sources into the Canal to avoid future water crises, but these works require time and million-dollar investments.“Before we always had water […]. This crisis taught us that managing water is now essential,” said Moreno, an electromechanical engineer with 41 years of experience in the Canal.

    The drought led the ACP to create a reservation system, just like the airlines, so that ships do not waste time waiting.“This Canal water crisis has helped us change our business model and be able to sell that certainty […], because for our client time is money,” said Moreno.“Selling certainty through the reservation system […] has been one of the great gains of this time,” he added.

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