Panama is facing a severe drought made worse by El Niño warming. (File)

Panama City, Panama:

The drought-hit Panama Canal will allow ships to pass through it for a year, a measure that has already caused a backlog at sea as boats queue to enter the waterway that connects two oceans.

The canal lacks stormwater needed to move ships through locks that work like water elevators — an engineering marvel that carries 6 percent of the world’s maritime trade to and across the Atlantic-Pacific continent.

The canal’s sub-manager, Ilya Espino, told AFP that barring heavy rains in the next three months, we should expect “a period of one year” of restricted access.

That period will give customers “a year to plan” for how to adapt, she said late Thursday.

Each ship passing through the canal requires 200 million liters of fresh water to transport it through the locks. The supply is provided by two artificial lakes, which also supply half of the country with around 4.2 million inhabitants with drinking water.

However, Panama is suffering from a severe drought, made worse by El Niño warming, which has forced the canal administration to restrict the waterway to ships with a draft (water depth) of 13.11 meters (43 feet).

In 2022, an average of 40 ships per day crossed the canal, meanwhile the number has dropped to 32 to save water.

traffic jam

The measures have resulted in a backlog of ships waiting to enter the 50-mile (80-kilometer) byway, which is primarily used by customers from the US, China and Japan.

About 130 boats were waiting on Thursday, while about 90 normally queued.

The waiting times, which are usually between three and five days, are sometimes up to 19 days, and are currently around 11 days.

Earlier this month, channel operators said the restrictions would likely result in a $200 million drop in profits in 2024 compared to this year.

For passage through the canal, ships can reserve a slot in advance or attempt to acquire a slot through an auction process. If you can’t secure a place, you’ll have to wait a long time.

“We can easily handle a queue of 90 ships waiting, but 130 or 140 ships cause us problems and delays,” Espino said.

This week, Panama’s President Laurentino Cortizo had to dismiss his Colombian counterpart Gustavo Petro’s claim that the canal was closed.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador also referred to the “special” situation of the waterway this week.

“We have a restriction in Panama as we have on other occasions, but it is not true that the Panama Canal is closed,” Cortizo said.

Adapt or die

The canal was opened in 1914 after a monumental construction project through dense jungle and mountains that left workers suffering from tropical diseases, intense heat and rain.

Since then, more than a million ships have passed through the canal, saving them a long journey around the tip of South America.

“The major disadvantage of the Panama Canal as a seaway is that we operate on freshwater while others use seawater,” canal administrator Ricaurte Vasquez told AFP earlier this month.

“We need to find other solutions to remain a relevant route for international trade. If we don’t adapt, we will die.”

Due to the draft restrictions, some merchant ships are forced to unload their containers and send the lighter ship through the canal while the goods cross Panama by rail before being transhipped.

(Except for the headline, this article was not edited by NDTV staff and is published via a syndicated feed.)

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