PANAMA CITY – The projections prepared by the Panama Canal regarding international trade demonstrate the need, within 15 years or less, for a second expansion of the waterway, but climate change appears to present an obstacle to those plans due to its effect on water sources.
“A fourth set of locks without more water is just a dream,” said Panama Canal Authority (ACP) administrator Jorge Quijano in discussing the plans for a future second expansion of the waterway just a few days before the one-year anniversary on June 26 of the entry into service of the first expansion.
A sign that climate change “is occurring” is that already in Panama there has not been “as before, continuous precipitation in ... May, June and July,” when – in the past – there “always” used to be rain “almost every day.”
“Now we’re seeing ... three days of a lot of rain and then three days without rain. And that is part of climate change. For the Canal, water is life, just as it is for us humans,” he said.
The interoceanic waterway, through which 6 percent of world trade passes, experienced the effect of climate change in 2016, when the two artificial lakes that feed it – Gatun and Alhajuela – began the year at abnormally low levels.
That was a “unique situation in the past 100 years,” said ACP Environment, Water and Energy Vice President Carlos Vargas at the time.
The ongoing drought in May 2016 forced restricting the size of the vessels passing through the Canal, and even the expanded Canal was inaugurated last June 26 with a lower water level than would have been available under “normal” conditions.
Last April, the Canal reported that hydroelectric production had been suspended at one of the two lakes to be able to maintain the water level needed for regular operation amid the “intense” drought that was still under way.
The two lakes supply not only the Canal, but also 55 percent of Panama’s population, which is concentrated in Panama City and its vicinity.
Human consumption of water “has been increasing to incredible levels,” said Quijano, going on to complain about the loss of potable water due to the repeated breakage of pipes in the metropolitan area, a situation that the authorities must resolve “because it’s impacting the reservoirs.”