Every year, many importers on the East Coast watch for weight restrictions at the Panama Canal, as this creates a big problem for certain commodities.
The El Niño phenomenon, a weather pattern that affects which part of the world will have more dry conditions and which part of the world will have wet conditions, is the main reason behind weight restrictions in the Panama Canal. The 1997-1998 season was one of the worst, where the season was dry, causing widespread blackouts. Unfortunately, the first quarter of 2019 is one of the driest periods in 106 years, so an advisory has been posted saying after April 30th, the maximum draught for transiting the new locks will be restricted to 44 feet of tropical fresh water.
What it means for importers is for 20′ DC cargo, the weight limit is around 7000 KGs and for 40’ cargo, the weight limit is suggested at 15,000 KGs. Steamship lines must make adjustments and vessels arriving after April 30th with drafts over 44 feet will be required to trim or off-load cargo prior to transiting the canal, if water levels are insufficient at the time of crossing.
The graph below shows the evolution of container ships over time.
Vessels that carry less than 5000 TEUs are affected much less by these draft restrictions. However, most of the vessels that are built today are over a 5,000 TEU capacity, so this will be a bigger problem in the years to come as efficiency is the main driver in building bigger ships.
The map below from the Global Drought Observatory shows much of Central America is under moderate drought conditions.
The Panama Canal has taken measures in order to reduce the impact of the [dry] season.
Measures include 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 ACP Vice President for Water and Environment Carlos 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.