Panama Canal experiences lowest water levels in history

El Nino and climate change currently affecting international trade

9 Oct 2023 by The Water Diplomat

One of the world's largest waterways, the Panama Canal is currently experiencing its lowest water levels in history, according to data from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Experts attribute the extreme drought to the El Niño climate phenomenon. This phenomenon causes the Pacific jet stream to move southwards and spread eastwards during the winter season, bringing heavy rainfall to South America. However, the summer season is also getting longer. As a result, the southern United States, as well as Panama and other neighboring regions, are currently experiencing exceptional drought conditions. Temperature changes in the region have also caused the waters of the Panama Canal to decline. Temperatures were slightly above average in recent weeks, fluctuating between 29°C and 32°C.

"The El Niño phenomenon has been very severe this year. We have warm temperatures simultaneously in the Pacific and the Atlantic," Panama Canal Authority head Ricaurte Vasquez told reporters on September 13. It was at this time that the canal began restricting vessel draught and allowing daily passage. This year, these measures were carried out earlier than usual to save water, triggering a backlog of ships awaiting passage on the world's main transoceanic route. The fragility of world trade is thus revealed. Up to 32 ships are currently authorized to transit each day, compared to  36 ships under normal conditions. Vessel draught was also limited earlier this year to a maximum of 44 feet, compared with 50 feet. Vasquez said that although this is not the worst drought Panama has ever experienced, it could be a very long one, with serious consequences for the global economy. Water levels in Lake Gatún, which feeds the waterway, were at 24.2 meters (79.7 feet) last week, compared with 26.6 meters for the month of September in recent years. If the drought continues beyond 12 months, the canal could be forced to modify its weather modeling, which could trigger further restrictions, Vasquez added.

Suspension of activities?

Could the Canal suspend its operations? "We don't think the Canal will suspend operations," he said. He has however been cited as saying that they should continue to restrict shipping traffic through the canal until 2024. It should be noted that water levels in Lake Gatún, which feeds the waterway, were at 24.2 meters at the beginning of September, down from 26.6 meters in September of recent years. Are there alternatives in sight? Since 2020, the Canal has been implementing the Water Program, an initiative that includes the identification and execution of a series of projects that would guarantee the availability of water to supply the population's consumption and ensure the waterway's operation for the next 50 years. Technical solutions within the jurisdiction of the Panama Canal are not sufficient to meet the growing demand for human consumption and transit. There are, however, external solutions which are not part of the Panama Canal watershed, and which have already been studied as long-term solutions. There is a project for additional reservoirs that would require a change in legislation and should be submitted to Congress.

It could be opened to tenders next year. This is not the first time that climate change has had an impact on global trade. European countries faced similar challenges last year, with key canals drying up, disrupting global trade and affecting economies around the world. Similar to the Panama Canal, this time last year the Rhine became impassable due to record temperatures caused by climate change, raising concerns for European trade.  Similarly, Italy's longest river, the Po, faced extreme drought in May 2022, for the same reasons.