A suspension “until further notice” of the latest round of draft restrictions on ships using the Panama Canal was issued yesterday by the Canal Authority. Dry conditions are likely to continue throughout July and may last to the end of the year.
The current maximum authorized draft of 44.0 feet (13.41 meters) Tropical Fresh Water, for ships transiting the Neopanamax locks, and a draft of 39.5 feet (12.04 meters) Tropical Fresh Water, for vessels transiting the Panamax locks, will remain in effect until further notice.
In the “Advisory to Shipping A-26-2019”, the Canal Authority suspended the previous draft limit of 43.0 feet (Neopanamax locks) and 38.5 feet (Panamax locks), which were due to take effect on July 16 owing to the lower-than-normal water levels in Gatun Lake.
Gatun Lake – a critically important waterway
Gatun Lake, which covers 163.38 square miles was created by the building of Gatun Dam in 1910 across the Chagres River. The lake provides about 20 miles of the waterway that ships use to transit through Panama.
Water from Gatun Lake is also pumped into waterway’s lock chambers. That lifts ships 85 feet above sea level and allows them to sail from one side of Panama to the other. About 101,000 cubic meters of water (3.56 million cubic feet) are used to fill a lock chamber. The Canal Authority says that an average of 52 million gallons of fresh water are used in each transit.
So it can be seen that Gatun Lake is vitally important to the correct functioning of the Panama Canal. Unfortunately, the level of rain in the Panama Canal watershed during December 2018 was about 90 percent below average. The Canal’s watershed – an area where rainfall and ground water drains into a common body of water – includes the hills, mountains and rivers around Gatun Lake, Miraflores Lake and the Madden Lake. Numerous small streams and rivers drain into the lakes.
Owing to the drier-than-normal weather, the Canal Authority said back in January that “water levels in Gatun and Madden Lakes [dropped] below the expected levels for this time of year. As a result, the Panama Canal has deemed it necessary to implement water conservation measures to delay implementation of seasonal draft adjustments and to minimize the adverse effect that these may have on our customers”.
A cascade of draft restrictions
The first draft restriction this year was set at 49.0 feet in January and took effect February 11. The Canal Authority said that vessels arriving with drafts over 49 feet might be required to trim or off-load cargo to transit.
Although the first draft limit was set at 49 feet in early January, a spate of advisories in January and February quickly dropped the level of allowable draft at the Neopanamax locks.
The allowable draft was quickly reduced to 48 feet, effective late February. Another reduction was announced to take effect in mid-March, down to 47 feet. By the end of February, the Authority had announced a further restriction in draft to 46 feet, to take effect March 29. By early March yet another restriction had been announced, this time to take effect in early April, when the allowable draft would be 45 feet.
But when early April rolled around, the Canal Authority found it necessary to reduce draft to 44 feet, which would take effect by the end of that month.
Container lines responded to the ongoing reduction in draft. APL, for instance, issued an advisory to customers stating that the draft reduction would “likely result in [a] reduced number of containers per vessel on services transiting the Panama Canal”.
In early May, the level of allowable draft was reduced yet again, and this time to 43 feet, to take effect by the end of May.
However, shortly after mid-May, the Authority was reporting that “as a result of the amount of rainfall in the Panama Canal watershed during the past week”, the previously announced limit of 43 feet was postponed to June 12 instead of taking effect on May 28.
Rainfall continued in the watershed and the reduction in draft to 43 feet was postponed from June 12 to June 19. It was again postponed a few days later to June 26, then to July 03, to July 16 and now it has been postponed “until further notice”.
Why be dry? El Niño, that’s why
In Panama, the dry season runs from January to March, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. This year, the dry spell was drier than normal owing to the “El Niño” weather phenomenon with up to 60 percent less rain than the long-term average, the UN FAO said. There is a very high likelihood (over 80 percent) that El Niño conditions would persist until the end of July and a 50 percent chance they would persist until the end of the year.
“El Niño” and “La Niña” are related weather phenomena that bring drought to some parts of the globe but heavy rains and floods to others. They are caused by winds driving warm water back and forth across the Pacific Ocean.