Two artificial lakes, Alhajuela and Gatun Lake, provide the canal with water, necessary for the operation of the locks. But their level has dropped drastically due to the drought hitting the watershed.

"Lake Alhajuela is running out of water more and more every day," said Leidin Guevara, 43, who comes to fish twice a month. It is on the gigantic Gatun Lake that ships sail from coast to coast.

Faced with this situation, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), for the fifth time during this dry season, had to limit access to the interoceanic route through which 6% of world maritime trade, mainly from the United States, China and Japan, pass.

The two lakes provide the water for the operation of the huge locks which, on both the Pacific and Atlantic sides, raise ships to the level of the canal, or lower them to that of the oceans. With each passage of ship, about 200 million liters of fresh water are discharged into the sea.

A ship passes through the Panama Canal, April 24, 2023 © Luis ACOSTA / AFP

"The lack of rain first impacts our water reserves," Erick Cordoba, the director in charge of water at the ACP, told AFP. As a result, Neopanamax-class ships – the largest, with a draft of just over 15 meters in fresh water, and which pay the most expensive tolls – can no longer pass, he adds.

In fiscal year 2022, more than 14,000 boats, carrying a total of 518 million tons of cargo, passed through the Canal, bringing $2.5 billion to the State of Panama.

Red lights

All the lights turned red for the first time in 2019: the Canal had only three billion cubic meters of fresh water while it needs just over 5.2 billion to operate.

Since then, the Panamanian authorities fear that shipowners may look for alternative routes because of the uncertainties surrounding the possibility of passing through the Canal.

Drought in Colon province, 50 km north of the capital Panama City, Panama, April 21, 2023 © Luis ACOSTA / AFP

The administrator of the Canal, Ricaurte Vasquez, recently acknowledged to the Panamanian internet news media SNIP Noticias that the lack of water is the main threat to traffic by the transoceanic route.

"Without a reserve that brings new volumes of water, this situation will prevent the growth" of the Canal's activity, Jorge Quijano, former administrator of the seaway, told AFP.

"It is essential to find new sources of water when climate change is already being felt, not only in our country, but around the world," he adds.

Drinking water events

The Canal watershed also provides fresh water to more than half of Panama's 4.3 million inhabitants.

Already, drought has caused running water cuts in several areas of the country. Residents have demonstrated and experts fear conflicts between users and the Canal around which the city is developing without a real urban plan, exploding the need for drinking water.

"We don't want to end up with a philosophical conflict between water for Panamanians and water for international trade," warns Ricaurte Vasquez.

Panama's Office of the Ombudsman urged the government in a statement Tuesday to "guarantee access to affordable and reliable water services" as these are "fundamental human rights."

Admittedly, the Canal has suffered from a "deficit of rainfall like the rest of the country, but within the normal limits of a dry season" tropical, told AFP Luz de Calzadilla, director of the Meteorological Institute of Panama.

However, she warns, "it is highly likely" that Panama will be affected during the second half of the year by the Niño weather phenomenon, characterized by a decrease in rainfall.

"To tell the truth, the administration of the Canal works miracles in order to maintain commercial activity while facing its social responsibility which is to provide drinking water for human consumption," notes Ms. de Calzadilla.

For his part, Leidin Guevara, the fisherman of Lake Alhajuela, warns against a backdrop of bird songs: "This year is the worst drought I have seen".

© 2023 AFP