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‘Unprecedented drought’ forces changes along the Panama Canal

‘Unprecedented drought’ forces changes along the Panama Canal
Sam Chambers June 6, 2023

“We could not have predicted exactly when the water shortage would occur to the degree that we are experiencing now.” A stark warning yesterday from Ricaurte Vásquez Morales, the administrator of the Panama Canal on the worsening drought creating traffic issues for ships transiting the Central American nation, likely to be one of the recurring main shipping news stories of 2023.

It requires 200m litres of water to allow the passage of a single vessel along the canal, water that is largely generated from Lake Gatun in the centre of the waterway, which is drying up fast.

Last month, further draft restrictions were announced for the canal (, whereby some of the larger boxships transiting it will have to do so carrying 40% less boxes than normal. Authorities at the canal warned yesterday that global trade ought to brace for further restrictions, especially with the imminent arrival of the El Niño weather phenomenon.

The Panamanian national government has recently decreed a climatic emergency on the back of months of minimal rainfall.

In the past, Panama suffered droughts every five years or so, something the canal administrator, Morales, said yesterday looks like it is now happening every three years.

“The current conditions are creating an unprecedented drought, and thus far has produced the driest year on record since 1950,” a release from the canal’s administrator stated.

Panama Canal specialists with the United States Corps of Engineers have started to evaluate alternatives to find long-term solutions that will allow the canal to guarantee this resource for the next 50 years.

What makes this year’s dry spell more concerning is that meteorologists are forecasting the imminent onset of El Niño, a weather pattern that typically brings drier-than-normal conditions across much of Central America. The last serious El Niño event in 2016 saw repeated Splash headlines about draft restrictions along the waterway.

The imminent arrival of El Niño and its likely repercussions for global shipping formed the lead story in the most recent issue of Splash Extra (