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Draft limits imposed as drought takes its toll on Panama Canal

Draft limits imposed as drought takes its toll on Panama Canal

An intense drought has forced the Panama Canal Authority to impose draft limits on ships moving through its locks that means larger ships must pass through with less cargo, The Associated Press has reported.

The maximum freshwater draft of 13.41 m for Neopanamax vessels was reduced by a foot at the end of April 2019 – maximum draft for ships of that size is about 15.2 m when water levels are optimal.

This is the fourth time that the draft has been reduced in the current dry season from January through to April although the limits only affect the Cocoli and Agua Clara locks.

The multibillion-dollar locks, inaugurated in 2016, see on average seven and a half vessels move through daily with a peak of 12 crossings a day on occasion.

Limitations on the draft will translate into lower revenue for voyages as the canal charges shipping companies based on a ship’s capacity and a percentage of the cargo it carries so lighter ships mean less profit.

It is expected to cost canal operators US$15m although when compared to 2018’s generated revenue of 2.5bn the economic hit seems negligible.

Carlos Vargas, vice president of environment and water for the Canal Authority, told The Associated Press: “These low levels in the Panama Canal are the product of four or five months of almost zero precipitation.

“It really has been the driest dry season we’ve had in the history of the canal. The flow of rivers to the lake is down 60%.”

The drought is linked to a recurring phenomenon, known as El Niño, in which warm ocean temperatures in the Pacific lead to drier than usual conditions in some areas and wetter in others.

In the past, a severe dry season associated with El Niño in 2015-2016 cost US$40m in revenue when it affected cargo crossing on the old locks.

The canal and most Panamanians rely on rains over a watershed of nearly 1,300 m2 that generates 95% of the water consumed by Panama City and Colon.

Gatun, one of the largest artificial lakes in the world, has dropped more than half a foot since early April and is 4.6 ft below normal levels for this time of year.

Last year saw the highest amounts of rainfall on record for the basin which has been said to have helped cushion the devastation of the current drought.

Steve Paton, head of the long-term climate monitoring programme at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, said: “Gatun and Alajuela lakes have been below optimum levels but on the other hand it could have been much worse.”

Short-term drought measures are being promoted by the canal such as suspending generation of hydroelectric power at Gatun and water recycling via tubs in the new locks that aim to cut water use by 60%.

Vargas added: “This has helped us alleviate the effect for the moment. In the medium term, we will continue reforestation programmes in the basin.”

Paton has forecasted that the canal has enough water to last at least 18 years but water could reach precariously low levels within 15 years if extreme climate patterns exist.

In order to soften the impact of extreme events, the canal authority has said that it needs more water reserves as the lakes fill when it rains heavily but there is no place to store surplus during the dry season.

At present, water supply for citizens has not been affected by the frought but small indigenous communities scattered along the Gatun’s tributaries have been hit.

By late May or mid-June could provide relief for both canal operators and citizens when torrential rains from the wet season fill the lakes.