Panama Canal, Drought, El Niño, Trade
Drought-hit Panama Canal further restricts maximum ship depth. ARIS MARTINEZ

The drought-hit Panama Canal will maintain restrictions on the passage of ships for one year, a measure that has already led to a marine traffic jam as boats line up to enter the crucial waterway linking two oceans, an official said late Thursday.

The canal is facing a shortage of rainwater to transfer ships through a series of locks that function like water elevators, an engineering marvel that moves six percent of the world's maritime commerce between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The canal's sub-administrator Ilya Espino, told AFP that unless heavy rains fall in the next three months, "we are looking at a period of one year" of restricted access to the waterway.

That period will give clients "a year to plan" how to adapt.

The 50-mile (80-kilometer) byway is mainly used by clients from the United States, China, and Japan, and on Thursday, some 130 boats were backed up waiting to enter, compared to around 90 usually in the queue.

Waiting times, usually between three and five days, have gone up to 19 days at times, although they now stand at around 11 days.

In 2022, an average of 40 ships crossed through the canal a day, a number which has now dropped to 32 to save water.

A drought, made worse by the Pacific warming phenomenon known as El Niño, has also forced canal administrators to restrict the waterway to ships with a draft of 13.11 meters (43 feet) -- which refers to how deep they sit in the water.

For each ship, 200 million liters of freshwater is used to move it through the locks before being dumped into the sea.

Earlier this month canal operators said the restrictions were likely to result in a $200 million drop in earnings in 2024 compared to this year.

This week Panama President Laurentino Cortizo was forced to deny an assertion by his Colombian counterpart Gustavo Petro that the canal was closed due to drought.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lépez Obrador, also referred this week to the "special" situation facing the waterway.

"We have a restriction in Panama as we have had on other occasions, but it is not true that the Panama Canal is closed," said Cortizo.