An intense drought related to this year’s El Nino phenomenon has forced the Panama Canal Authority to announce a new maximum draft restriction – the sixth since January this year.
It means that many ships will have to unload some of their cargo to pass through.
The drought and the increasingly tight restrictions highlight the difficulties Panama now faces in satisfying increased demand for fresh water to feed the canal while irrigating fields and keeping the taps flowing in the capital, as climate change takes hold.
“In the canal area we are observing climatic events that are becoming increasingly extreme,” says Steve Paton, head of the long-term climate-monitoring program at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
“The worst droughts and nine largest storms have occurred in the last 20 years – with 2014 to 2016 the driest years in the canal’s entire history.”
However, the limits only affect only the Cocoli and Agua Clara Locks – a multibillion-dollar project inaugurated in 2016 to accommodate the larger Neopanamax ships.
Water supplies for citizens have so far been unaffected by the drought, but small indigenous communities scattered along the Gatun’s tributaries have been hit.