Draft restrictions are being put in place this week along the Panama Canal as drought once again plagues one of the world’s most important maritime arteries.
With rainfall dropping by 50% compared to recent averages from February to April, the Panama Canal Authority has been forced to institute two draft restriction measures, the first this Wednesday followed by another next Monday. Further restrictions are possible with meteorologists warning water depths in Lake Gatun, which is in the centre of the canal, could hit historic lows by July.
Starting May 24, neo-panamax vessels will be allowed drafts of up to 13.56 m, down from an already restricted 13.72 m. Next week this will drop to 13.41 m, meaning some boxships will need to travel across the waterway with 40% less cargoes. A number of global liners have reacted to the restrictions by announcing surcharges, while shippers are looking at the all-water route from Asia to the US east coast via the Suez Canal as an alternative in the coming few months.
Shipping has had to contend with similar droughts ever since the canal was expanded seven years ago with images of tree stumps pushing up from Lake Gatun becoming commonplace. 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.