Continued Low Water Restricts Panama Canal Transits

For much of this year, persistent drought affecting the Gatun Lake, the principal source of water to operate the Panama Canal, has required restrictions on drafts of vessels transiting the canal. The Panama Canal Authority’s website notes that while it has dealt with droughts in the past, the “current severity and its recurrence has no historical precedence.”

The canal handles about 5 percent of all world trade. The canal authority has been trying to put the most positive spin it can on the ongoing situation. It notes that transits have been up, despite conditions.

The Panama Canal remains the primary route for 57.5 percent of the total cargo transported in container ships from Asia to the East Coast of the United States, which the authority says is consistent with 2022 figures. “This figure has not decreased, so the canal continues to be the preferred route for the container carrier segment, which has been minimally impacted by the adjustments to draft and transits associated with the measures incorporated to conserve water.”

The authority aims to maintain a draft of 44 feet throughout the remainder of the current year and part of 2024, “unless significant changes occur in weather conditions from current projections.” During this period, 32 vessels per day will transit the canal, down from an average of 36 in normal circumstances. The authority notes that Neopanamax transit capacity will remain largely unchanged at an average of 10 daily transits.

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In the first nine months of fiscal year 2023, 69.6 percent of the transiting Neopanamax container ships had a draft of less than 44 feet. The authority claims that the cost of transiting goods through the Panama Canal averages 0.5 percent of the container’s cargo value.

The Panama Canal has implemented two daily measures:

• At the Panamax locks, the draft remains unchanged, and the number of transits is limited to an average of 22.

• For the Neopanamax locks, the available maximum draft is set at 44 feet, and the number of transits remains unaffected at an average of 10 per day.

As of August 29, a total of 135 vessels were distributed between the Atlantic and Pacific entrances. Vessels without reservations experience a wait of nine to 10 days, up from the usual five-day wait. The authority says the goal is to keep queues below 90 vessels.