PANAMA CITY – The Panama Canal will have to determine “how it is going to meet demand for water over the next 50 years” and one possibility is to build desalination plants, a costly but sustainable option, Panama Canal Authority (ACP) head Ricaurte Vasquez said Tuesday.
“Desalinating water ... looks like a more expensive alternative, but it provides the canal with long-term sustainability and the possibility of controlling the amount” of water available, Vasquez said in an address to the Sumarse business group.
Vasquez said you cannot have development that is not sustainable, adding that the effects of “climate change on the Panama Canal are clearly evident.”
The ACP chief said water was essential not just for the waterway, but for some “2 million people” living in the greater Panama City metropolitan area.
The man-made Gatun and Alajuela lakes feed the canal, through which nearly 6 percent of global trade passes and whose main customers are the United States and China, as well as providing drinking water for Panama City and surrounding areas.
Vasquez said that due to climate change, Panama, which has an area of slightly more than 75,000 sq. kilometers (28,957 sq. miles), “has experienced a permanent reduction in rainfall in the past decade.”
The temperature of Gatun Lake has risen “by 1.5 degrees Celsius,” causing “the water evaporation levels to significantly higher than 25 years ago,” Vasquez said.
“We lose more water to evaporation than we did before” and “not only is there less rain, but it’s different, we go through long periods of drought and later we expect to get lots of rain at the end of the year,” the ACP chief said.
The Panama Canal faces “a sustainability problem ... the Suez Canal would be an alternative” for shipping “because it does not have these problems,” Vasquez said, adding that “the issue of water is the most sensitive one we are looking at today.”
“We have looked at such crazy things as moving water around,” sourcing it from a water plant outside the capital, as well as building “additional reservoirs” and “bringing water from the Bayano River to fill Gatun Lake,” the ACP chief said.
In the end, however, “desalinating water ... appears to be a more expensive alternative, but it provides the canal with long-term sustainability and the ability to control the amount of water,” Vasquez said.
The Panama Canal, which was constructed by the United States in the early 20th century and handed over to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999, links more than 140 maritime routes and 1,700 ports in 160 countries.
The Panama Canal’s new set of locks were inaugurated on June 26, 2016, following an expansion project that cost some $5.6 billion.
The expansion project was carried out between 2007 and 2016, the centerpiece of which was a new third set of locks that allow the canal to accommodate modern Neopanamax ships that can carry up to 14,000 shipping containers.