Unprecedented drought forces Panama Canal to impose further draft limits

Faced with an enormous drought brought about by El Nino, the Panama Canal Authority imposed yesterday further draft limits for vessels moving through its expanded locks. The new maximum authorised draft for vessels transiting the neopanamax locks is 13.41 m, nearly 2 m short of its original design draft. This is the fifth time this year the canal’s administrators have had to impose ever stricter draft limits amid an unprecedented drought.

Gatún — one of the largest artificial lakes in the world, with an area of 436 sq km located near the Atlantic end of the canal — is 1.4 m below normal levels for this time of year. Images of trees that used to be submerged but are now exposed due to the low water levels of Lake Gatún have been recorded in recent days. A smaller lake that also supplies the waterway, Alajuela, is 2.2 m below usual water levels. The flow of rivers to the lake is down 60% on the back of one of the driest periods in the canal’s history where there has been almost zero precipitation this year.

The latest draft restrictions bring more weather-related headaches to shipowners who will need to adjust how laden their ships are when transiting the key waterway.

The issue of changing weather patterns hitting shipping schedules was addressed by Jeremy Nixon, CEO of Japanese liner Ocean Network Express (ONE), earlier this month.

Speaking at TOC Asia, a container shipping event in Singapore, Nixon said global warming is leading to liner disruption. Growing fierce weather patterns are causing delays for ports and ships around the world, principally in Asia where the number and ferocity of typhoons are growing, Nixon said.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. Lake Gatún — one of the largest (?) artificial lakes in the world, with an area of 436 sq km
    Williston Lake is a reservoir created by the W. A. C. Bennett Dam and is located in the Northern Interior of British Columbia, Canada with an area of 1,761 km²

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