Earlier this year, the Panama Canal implemented water saving measures after experiencing the fifth driest year at the Canal in 70 years. The Panama Canal has now emerged from its dry season equipped to ensure a competitive draft, and thus steady operations for months to come. Having an operational level of water and transit reliability in the second half of 2020 will be critical for the waterway as it advances its search for long-term water solutions and prepares for coronavirus-driven shifts in trade, as the Panama Canal Administrator outlined earlier this month.
The waterway has carefully monitored its operational water usage since the end of 2018, when rainfall at the watershed was 20 percent below the historic average. This unprecedented drought severely constrained water levels at Gatun and Alhajuela Lakes, the main sources of water for the Canal and half of Panama’s population. Despite the extensive use of water conservation tactics across Canal operations, inadequate draft levels were still projected to significantly restrict cargo transiting the waterway if no further interventions were made.
As a result, on February 15, the Panama Canal adopted a series of bold measures to sustain an operational level of water, including a freshwater surcharge informed by daily water level data at Gatun Lake, a profit-neutral measure that is also a standard practice across the industry. The reservation system was also altered to increase certainty around transit schedules, which allowed for more efficient use of water resources and conservation tactics, such as cross-filling lockages, an innovative technique developed by the Canal team that saves the same amount of water used in six lockages each day by sending water between the two lanes during transits at the Panamax Locks.
Now, less than three months after the conservation measures were implemented, the water levels at Gatun Lake can accommodate a steady 45-foot draft, higher than projected for the start of the rainy season that began mid-May. Panama’s rainy season official start date is determined by various environmental factors, such as wind speed, rainfall in the watershed, ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Panama, among other metrics.