Due to low water levels of Gatun Lake, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) announced it will impose another draft restriction of 43 ft (13.11m) Tropical Fresh Water (TFW) effective May 28.
The draft of the original locks, limited to ships up to 5,000 TEU, will now also be affected by the restrictions. The new Maximum Authorized Draft for vessels transiting the Panamax locks after May 28 will be 38.5 ft (11.73 m) TFW.
Shipments to the Gulf and East Coast, especially heavy shipments, that pass through the Panama Canal could be affected, as carriers may restrict or roll bookings to meet the draft requirements.
Vessels arriving after May 28 with drafts exceeding the restrictions will be required to trim or off-load cargo prior to transiting the canal if water levels are insufficient at the time of crossing.
New Panama Canal draft restrictions will impact container ships
A drought spurred by a weather phenomenon called "El Niño" has caused ACP to impose a sixth draft reduction for vessels transiting the Neopanamax locks of Panama Canal.
- From Feb 27, the draft of the Neopanamax locks was restricted to 48 ft (14.63 m) TFW
- From Mar 13, it dropped to 47 ft (14.33 m) TFW.
- From Mar 29, it fell to 46.0 ft (14.02 m) TFW
- From Apr 10, it was restricted to 45 ft (13.72 m) TFW.
- From Apr 30, it shrunk to 44 ft (13.41 m) TFW.
- Now, after May 28, it will further shrink to 43 ft (13.11 m) TFW and ACP added a 38.5 ft (11.73 m) TFW restriction to the original Panamax locks
“Right now there is a 45-foot draft restriction on the Neopanamax locks. If the dry spell continues, we may need to restrict it to 44 feet. But very few container ships have a draft beyond 45 feet, so the impact is not that much," Jorge Luis Quijano, administrator and chief executive of the Panama Canal Authority, told the JOC earlier this month.
"It will start to hit us at a 44 foot draft; the next 20 days are critical,” said Quijano.
The evolution of container ships
The infographic below shows the evolution of containerships over time.
Source: Ashar & Rodrigue, 2012. All dimensions are in meters. LOA: Length overall.
The loads displayed on deck represent maximal possible loads, which would involve a large share of empty containers.
The loads are usually 1 to 3 container less in height. Containerships usually carry less containers because of weight restrictions and lack of demand.
Prior to May, vessels carrying 5,000 TEU or less were not likely to be affected by the draft restrictions. However, the average draft of Post Panamax II vessels carrying 6,000-8,000 TEUs is around 14.5 m fully laden, exceeding the Apr 30 restriction of 44 ft (13.41 m).
Now that the draft restrictions have extended to both the Neopanamax and Panamax locks, most container ships will be affected in some way. According to JOC.com, carriers anxious to avoid having containers stranded at the entrance to the canal have trimmed loadings on vessels to Asia by 10 percent.
To comply with the ever-shrinking Panama Canal draft restrictions, vessel operators must carefully control the weight of cargo to ensure that their ships can safely transit the canal without issue.
Some ocean carriers have immediately begun restricting heavy containers greater than seven to eight tons per TEU from loading. Carriers may also restrict or roll bookings during this period to plan their loading and adjust their drafts accordingly.
Severe drought in Central America to blame for Panama Canal draft restrictions
Precipitation in the Panama Canal watershed during December 2018 fell 90 percent below the historical average, causing water levels in Gatun and Madden Lakes to drop below expected levels for 2019. According to waterway authorities, January 2019 was the driest month the country has seen in the past 106 years.
The cause of the drought can be attributed to a weather phenomenon called "El Niño", where changes in sea surface temperatures (SSTs) affect the atmosphere, resulting in distinctive changes in rainfall patterns across the Pacific Basin.
“The intensity of the solar radiation, added to a 30% increase in the winds, is causing the water in the lakes Gatun and Madden to evaporate at a faster rate than it enters and lake levels are falling at breakneck speed,” said ACP Vice President for Water and Environment Carlos Vargas.
A map from the Global Drought Observatory shows much of Central America under moderate drought conditions
“The Panama Canal has taken measures in order to reduce the impact of the [dry] season by using the water-saving basins, closing the Gatun hydropower station, as well as implementing the Panamax Water Conservation Programme. This includes not using hydraulic assist at the locks, tandem lockages (two ships in one lockage, whenever possible), and chamber cross-filling operations,” said Vargas.
While the Panama Canal Authority has attempted to conserve water to avoid adverse effects on business, the drought has caused the authority to announce several draft restrictions for vessels transiting the Neopanamax locks since January.
During the dry season, draft adjustments for the Neopanamax locks are typically announced in 12-inch (30.5 cm) decrements at a time, generally with at least four weeks advanced notice.
So what is a shipper to do?
If you are shipping to the Gulf or the East Coast and your shipments move through the Panama Canal, make sure to plan accordingly. Heavy shipments greater than 7 tons/TEU will be most at risk of getting rolled or restricted at loading, so be sure to confirm verified gross mass weight limitations prior to shipping.
If you have any questions, please contact your UWL Logistics Coordinator for more information, or contact us today.
Additional coverage & information
- Fifth Update of the Maximum Authorized Draft for the Neopanamax Locks - AUTORIDAD DEL CANAL DE PANAMÁ
- Panama Canal Advisories to Shipping - AUTORIDAD DEL CANAL DE PANAMÁ
- Severe dry season sees fifth draught reduction for Panama Canal new locks - Seatrade Maritime News
- Asia-US trade: Panama Canal warns of sharper El Niño draft limits - JOC
- NASA Sees El Niño Conditions Prevail in the Central Pacific Ocean - NASA
- Intense Heat and Economic Effects in Panama due to El Niño - Prensa Latina
- Global Drought Observatory Interactive Map