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Panama Canal faces water shortages

December 31, 2019

The Panama Canal's handover from the United States 20 years ago has been marked in Panama amid water supply worries. Managers say less rainfall due to climate change has depleted the inter-ocean conduit's Gatun Lake.

A container ship in the Panama Canal
Image: Imago/imagebroker

President Laurentino Cortizo hoisted a giant Panamanian flag outside Canal headquarters Tuesday as its operators mused over low water levels — compounded by its expansion in 2016 into a third lane to serve mega ships transiting between Asia and the US eastern seaboard.

Recurrent droughts left the 80 kilometer-long (50 mile) system of locks with only 3 billion cubic meters of water this past year, instead of the 5.2 billion cubic meters needed, according to the canal authority (ACP).

Gatun Lake, which sustains the waterway and provides local drinking water, is also losing volume by evaporation, with its temperature up 1.5° Celsius in the past decade.

Administrator Ricaurte Vasquez on Tuesday blamed climate change, drawing attention to Panama's costly ideas of desalinating seawater or building reservoirs.

Currently, the region's rainfall deficit is 27% compared with the average, said the ACP.

May 2018: the giant Norwegian Bliss transits the Panama Canal
May 2018: the giant cruise ship Norwegian Bliss transits the Panama CanalImage: picture-alliance/AP Images/A. Franco

Other routes as polar ice melts?

Already, canal officials fear that ships transiting Pacific-Atlantic waters across the narrow Central American isthmus will opt for other global routes, such as Egypt's Suez Canal or Arctic transits north of Russia or Canada as polar ice melts.

The Panama Canal handled 451 million tons of goods in 2019, representing 3.5% of world trade — down from 5% previously.

Consolidation of Asian economies, amid US-China trade standoffs, had also put the canal's prospects in difficulty said Horacio Estribi, an adviser to Panama's economy minister.

French, then American

Inaugurated in 1914, the Panama Canal was managed for 85 years by the US until its handover on December 31, 1999 to Panama.

France had begun work on the canal in 1881 but mass tropical disease mortality among workers and engineering problems stymied efforts. Container ships represent more than half of the traffic through the expanded canal, followed by liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) carriers and liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers, according to the canal authority.Every evening, DW sends out a selection of the day's news and features. Sign up here.

Panama's newly expanded canal

ipj/se (AFP, AP)