At night, the trains don’t stop. Adjacent to the Panama Canal, a wall of shipping containers on a chain of oversized steel dollies presses on toward the Caribbean, where vessels wait to receive the cargo they left behind on the Pacific side of the country. There is no beginning or end in sight. This is just one consequence of drought for a country that has always been dependent on water for its economic stability.
“For the last 10 years, we have had to wait up until the end of the wet season for one or two big storms to fill the lakes,” says Erik Cordoba, manager of the hydrology department for the Panama Canal Authority, or ACP. “However if that storm doesn’t occur, we don’t have enough precipitation, and dry season problems [continue on].”
Of the more than 10,000 employees working to keep the Panama Canal up and running, it’s Cordoba who has the daunting task of informing the organization’s lead administrator, Ricaurte Vasquéz, what he can expect for available water each week to run the canal. Lately, that hasn’t been good news.
For the past five years, mounting pressures have befallen Lake Gatún, the canal’s main supply of water located along the country’s Atlantic coast, now an average of 2 to 3 feet below historical levels. An intensifying dry season due to a prolonged El Niño weather cycle, along with the steep water demands of a new passageway and a swelling population of Panamanian citizens, have become a war of attrition on the country’s finite watershed.
There are an average 14,000 ships passing through the canal annually, comprising 5% percent of global trade, and 40% of Panama’s economy. With the canal under such immense pressure to remain operational, its leadership has had to prescribe a series of draft restrictions on large vessels, while finding creative ways to reuse water between passing ships – all to bide time until a new source of water can be identified.
“The thing is, when the population grows, when you increase the number of vessels that need to transit through the canal, you wind up spending more water than you have in the 100 years of the canal,” adds Cordoba.
For the past 12 years, he’s joined a small team of 43 hydrologists to track and model the canal’s watershed by gathering data from more than 60 hydrological stations dotting the 50-mile channel. Cordoba says their latest findings for the year of 2019 show a staggering 20 percent deficit in average annual rainfall rates since 1950. In these conditions, the steel gate mechanisms that form each chamber, known as locks, cannot draw enough water to raise large ships up to the level of the channel, which is a full 85 feet above sea level.
Without enough precipitation in the canal’s main reservoirs, larger vessels risk running aground. To avoid this, many ships will opt to offload containers full of dried goods and products to stay buoyant in the narrow passageway. The Panama Canal Railway, once the only way of crossing the isthmus before 1914, has found renewed purpose as a result.
But choosing to ship cargo on the railway is not an easy decision when the cost for transiting is already so high. Depending on a vessel’s size and payload, shipping companies can pay anywhere from $100,000 to nearly $1 million for their reservation to cross. Freshwater surcharges associated with the drought levy another $10,000, plus up to 10% interest depending on the size and weight of the vessel.
“When you have a vessel that can carry three times more cargo compared to the [smaller] Panamax vessels,” notes Cordoba, “then the shipping company [may] decide to choose the newer, larger Neopanamax locks.”
Panamax and Neopanamax are two classes of freighter, each known for their goliath size; they are among the largest vessels in the shipping industry. Many Panamanians use their names to describe the locks that can fit them – the former attributable to the original gateways of the canal (named Miraflores, Gatún and Pedro Miguel). The latter is the namesake of the newest entry point unveiled in 2016.
Formerly, it was the Panamax ship that reigned king in the shipping industry, carrying up to 52,000 tons of cargo – a mind-boggling load equal to transporting 260 blue whales per ship. But since the opening of the newest locks, the namesake vessel, Neopanamax, has more than doubled that cargo load. However, to float ships like this requires more water to keep the vessel buoyant enough to transit. With the intensified dry season, many will inevitably have to make a difficult financial decision to cross.
Until a better alternative for ships to transit without shedding cargo arises, the trains keep going.
An Achilles Heel
Even today, the Panama Canal is heralded as one of the great triumphs of modern civil engineering. Finished by the United States in 1914, the channel provided a crucial passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, cutting 8,000 miles off an otherwise lengthy trip around the base of South America. Today, it’s still inspiring new engineers.
“This is engineering mecca,” says Steven Chapra, professor emeritus in environmental engineering at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “It’s a pilgrimage I recommend for many of my engineering students.”
Until recently, the canal had been the pinnacle of sustainable engineering, according to Chapra. The New Panama Canal Company, an American group of engineers, concurred that it would be easier to raise the boats than to level the land at the dangerous mountain impasse, known as the Culebra Cut. So, they chose to build the lock system, creating a series of watery steps, incrementally raising freighters up and over the continental divide. Unlike its eastern counterpart, the Egyptian Suez Canal, which uses pumps to move water, this new system opened pipes that used gravity to feed water from one of two man-made lakes down into the chambers where boats wait to be raised.
For Chapra, problems arise when the capacity of the two reservoirs confronts an unpredictable climate and increasing demands for water, which the canal’s original architects couldn’t have anticipated.
“There’s always that balance between trying to catch the water and store it during the wet season, without losing any of it,” he adds. “If the storms become less frequent, and more concentrated and intense, you could get them all at one time and [all the rainfall] comes in at once… you don’t size [your reservoirs] for that.”
Those basins, Gatún and its smaller counterpart, Lake Alajuela to the east of the canal, were both created by damming portions of the turbulent Chagres River. But, as Chapra points out, both dams were not built to withstand the sudden deluge of 100- or 300-year flooding events, like La Purisima – a 2010 storm that rained down Panama’s typical total annual rainfall in a matter of hours. It’s the difference between turning on a faucet full force into a tiny cup, or letting it trickle in slowly.
Though sustainable for its time, the canal’s locks system still uses an enormous amount of fresh water to raise vessels, water that is lost to the sea after each use.
It takes more than 52 million gallons of water for one vessel to be raised up onto the channel. The quantity is so large that the ACP often measures water precipitation levels in “number of transits.” When the Neopanamax locks were opened in 2016 following a record-setting drought, Panama increased the opportunity for more vessels to transit, but it did so at the cost of more water. That cost would require engineers to raise the level of Gatún by nearly two feet, something that is yet to happen.
Just a year after a record-setting 2015 drought, the Neopanamax locks were completed with the promise of providing a more sustainable water recycling system. Today that system has evidenced an unfortunate miscalculation.
While the new recycling tanks of these locks, a Dutch-inspired design, claim to reuse up to 60 percent of the water, that remaining 40 percent is still new demand for water that’s adding to the H2O deficit.
“When you do hydrological work, everything’s like a stock market,” Chapra says. “You’re basing your projections on history, but it’s all extrapolation.”
Now on what seems to be an impossible path, the Canal Authority has had to find creative ways of retaining water in the last five years. One method, known as a “complete cross fill,” occurs in the old lock system (Panamax) where two boats are raised and lowered at the same time. Though seemingly straightforward in nature, officials say the process requires a careful reshuffling of ship reservations in the queue in order to pair equally sized vessels.
“We try to predict [when we’ll use this],” notes Cordoba. “But some vessels don’t have the correct scale, so that’s why we have to go by log, and [see if] some vessels have to wait, because we have reservations for our clients.”
A difficult decision ahead
Whether it’s drought or intense rainfall, Panama now exists in a world of extremes. A rise in global temperatures has disrupted an otherwise regular five-year turnover between warm and cold air hitting Panama’s Pacific coastline. And as heat continues to build in the climate system, scientists expect the atmosphere will hold more moisture, supercharging bigger storms. In fact, three of the biggest storms in a century to hit Panama – “La Purisima” in 2010, an unnamed storm in 2014 and Hurricane Otto in 2016 – did so in the past six years.
The difficulty with the issues of drought and flood is that they will require different solutions, according to local scientists.
“We’ve shown that forested areas mitigate peak flooding,” says forest ecologist Jefferson Hall of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “But as my colleague used to say, ‘As a manager, you can’t manage for the averages, you need to plan for the extremes.’”
Hall is the lead scientist and director for a water conservation and forest assessment program called the Agua Salud Project. For the past 12 years, he and his team have observed the water flow of 13 weirs spanning watersheds across Panama’s many different land types – from native forest to cattle pastures. He says that while the ACP has gotten a gold star for reforesting its watershed to retain groundwater, the net result won’t satisfy the water needs of the expanded canal, especially during dry conditions.
“The issue isn’t just about droughts, or the fact that people in the city are using more water out of the canal than [before], it’s about this expansion,” adds Hall. “Ultimately, the [Panama Canal Authority] will need gobs more water in the lake to run without draft restrictions.”
So far, the ACP has explored three options for solutions to mitigate the issues facing the canal.
The first, would require damming a river called Rio Indio, located a few hours west of the canal, and siphoning that water off to Lake Gatún. However, Hall concludes the resulting flood waters would risk displacing untold levels of biodiversity in a vital corridor between the continents, not to mention a number of small farming communities.
“Whenever you dam a river there’s an ecological effect, but it’s a balancing act of whether you’re going to accept it or not,” says Hall. “There are people who live there, you know if you dam a river, their lands will be flooded.”
And while even Cordoba does not know how large the floodplain of the next dam would be, the decision may very well echo the devastation wrought when the canal was created at the turn of the 20th century. Back then, the creation of Gatún displaced more than 40,000 residents, inundating towns and productive plantations.
Another solution would extend this industrial straw to the east, to slurp up water from the Rio Bayano Reservoir, another massive man-made lake bordering Panama’s Darien Province. But in this scenario, the ACP could risk violating the rights of two indigenous tribes, the Guna and Embéra. In 2014 the groups won a lawsuit granting them reparations after the AES hydropower company neglected to get their permission, violating rules set down by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. To tap the Bayano now may only further inflame those tensions.
Finally, the ACP has proposed a plan called the Trinidad Project. This would increase the capacity of sections along Lake Gatún by dividing parts of the reservoir that are outside the main channel using newly raised fortified walls. To do that, Cordoba says the ACP would have to make a decision in the next year or so to allow necessary time for the engineers to begin construction.
“We need one project at least, and quickly,” remarks Cordoba. “I hope this year, but they need to hurry because we need some results right now.”
For Cordoba and so many more Panamanians, the canal is more than just a symbol of engineering prowess. The operation provides 370 million gallons of potable water every day for the residents of Panama City – the equivalent of 560 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Should the drought continue unabated, or the next severe flood break the canal dams, the country would experience a devastating blow to its economy and to the health of its population, like nothing it has ever experienced before.
“It’s basically a national security issue for Panama,” says Hall. “They really have no choice but to get more water from somewhere else.”