Panama’s Worsening Droughts


Zack Fogarty

This year, Panama has seen one of the driest dry seasons in its history. Due to El Niño, Panama experiences natural dry months every year as warm temperatures over the Pacific change weather patterns. Not only is this affecting residents of Panama, it’s also making it harder to ship across the Panama canal, one of the most important shipping ways in the world. Cutting a path between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the canal handles roughly 5% of all maritime trade. Now, climate change, combined with the naturally occurring El Niño weather pattern, is creating problems. The water levels of the two lakes that supply water to the canal, Gatun and Alajuela, have already dropped by 1.4 and 2.2 meters respectively.

To keep the changing water levels from causing serious damage, to both the canal and ships, canal authorities have put strict weight limits on freighters, otherwise their hulls may run aground along the canal. The draft limit (the limit on how low a ship’s hull can sink) on ships has already been changed five times, from the original 50 feet to now 43 feet for larger ships. The tariffs on goods that move through the canal are partially based on the cargo loads of the ships and so far the new limitations have cost canal authorities $15 million. When compared to the yearly profit of $2 billion, this is a minuscule amount, but the numbers will only become more drastic as climate change worsens, and the number could have been much worse this year if not for an extra rainy wet season.

Operating the canal each year requires a balanced effort of saving and storing water during the rainy season and then slowly spending it over the dry season, since each time a large ship uses the canal around 50 million gallons of water are lost to the ocean, this is a difficult process. And this net loss takes into account the special basins that have been built to conserve water from the locks. The same lakes that supply water to the canal are also used as sources of water for much of Panama’s growing population so overusing the water could be detrimental to portions of the populace. Not all of the canal’s issues are just during the dry season. Torrential winds during December 2010 caused the canal to overflow and close for a day; too much water in the canal can deal damage to much of the canal’s infrastructure.

Panama’s dry season is over now and the canal’s water levels are stabilizing, but some of the restrictions may be kept well into the summer and could return yearly if dry seasons continue to be harsh. The effects of these dry seasons were already known to affect canals, but despite the having canal opened in 1914, several of the worst droughts and four of the worst storms have occurred in the past decade. To combat the worsening effects of climate change canal authorities plan to build more reservoirs, stabilizing the effects of drought and floods, but not only would new reservoirs be costly, they’d also require a new source of water from a watershed further from the canal, demanding the construction of new dams and tunnels.