The next two months are crucial in Panama’s battle to keep canal water levels topped up

  • October 9, 2023
  • News

The Gatun reservoir at the heart of the Panama Canal is experiencing a daily water deficit that is equal to 1,200 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The canal’s administrators recently issued a warning, stating that water levels at the lake are at their lowest-ever recorded levels during a rainy season.

The Gatun Reservoir is crucial for shipping in the freshwater channel. Panama has suffered an unprecedented drought this year, so restrictions on flow and transit across the canal have been imposed to conserve water. Today, the reservoir is 2.1 m below the estimated level for that time of year.

Due to the El Niño weather phenomenon, the 2023 average rainfall in the canal basin is 25.6% which is below the 73-year average. The canal operators describe the next 80 days of the rainy season as crucial in increasing water storage before the arrival of the dry season in 2024.

The canal officials are working with lawmakers to change the 2006 law to allow a new reservoir, named Rio Indio – that will help retain Lake Gatun’s main water level high and provide drinking water to Panama’s growing population. Aware of the ongoing drought throughout the country in this year’s El Nino, the Panama Canal Authority has decided to further reduce daily traffic starting in early November.

Due to dry conditions for much of 2023, canal operators reduced the maximum depth of the largest neopanamax locks by almost 2 metres and reduced daily transits from 40 to 32 per day. This total will now decrease by one transit to 31 transits per day from November 1, breaking to nine through neopanamax locks and 22 through Panamax locks.
Over the past six weeks, canal operators have managed to reduce waiting times at both ends of the waterway, from a peak of more than 160 vessels in early August to around a hundred vessels now. A similar to the same time last year, only 10 more than the average of the past seven years.

The El Niño weather phenomenon aims to bring drier conditions to Panama for an extended period, likely meaning that there will be draft and transit restrictions in the first half of 2024.