Drought chokes the Panama Canal: “Fertile land turned into a huge piece of cement”

World trade routes, fundamental in the globalization process of the last quarter of a century, are seriously threatened.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
14 May 2024 Tuesday 06:00
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Drought chokes the Panama Canal: “Fertile land turned into a huge piece of cement”

World trade routes, fundamental in the globalization process of the last quarter of a century, are seriously threatened. And not because of geopolitical conflicts, but because of another issue that was not suspected when channels were opened a century ago to shorten distances in ocean travel: the climate crisis. If transit through the Suez Canal is limited by the war in the Middle East, which already extends to the Red Sea, the maritime trade that crosses the Panama Canal, opened in 1914, has its future compromised by the amount of water that require their locks.

It is an issue that at the moment is not clear how to address it, despite the fact that the step represents 6% of the GDP of the Central American country and 20% of the country's income. Will it be replaced by a railway again? The news broke in Colombia a few days ago, when President Gustavo Petro relaunched the 'megaproject' of building a railway line that would compete with the canal in the transport of goods between the Pacific and Atlantic shores, given the problems that the canal is having due to lack of rain. A drought that is worsening with the climate crisis and intensified by the El Niño phenomenon.

In 2023, ship traffic through its lock system was reduced for months, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, and only the latest recent rains have allowed it to partially recover. But not as it was in 2022. To this we must add the demand for water from the Panamanian agricultural sector. Now we look to the future with concern. “They are turning to Spanish companies that are experts in greenhouses to save water,” they point out from their Embassy in Spain. “In the end, the climate crisis affects everything,” they acknowledge.

Orlando Acosta, engineer of the Panama Canal, on a recent visit to Madrid invited by Casa de América, recalled that it was on this American isthmus where there was the first railway in the tropics, which linked both coasts. “At first it was promoted to make the shortest trip for travelers from the east to the west of the United States, but with the Industrial Revolution it became necessary to transport goods. “Panama was the perfect place for it,” he noted.

After an attempt by the French engineer Ferdinand Lesseps to do it following the Suez model, all at the same level, geographical constraints prevailed. The Panama Canal was built with a system of locks that lift the ships to overcome the 26 meters of geographical difference that exists to the highest point of the route. To go up and down, water from the artificial lakes of Gatún and Alhajuela is used, where the water provided by the rains is stored. Or they did.

When it was inaugurated in 1914, although the El Niño phenomenon already existed, it was not suspected that this very profitable industrial revolution was going to change the planetary climate with the use of fossil fuels. In fact, during the 20th century, while the canal was under the jurisdiction of the United States, which also kept a strip of land on both banks in exchange for its construction, maritime traffic continued to grow exponentially.

Upon returning to Panamanian hands, with the beginning of the year 2000, and at the height of commercial globalization, the volume of transits was such, generating considerable income for the country, that its expansion was planned so that larger ships could pass through. This work, carried out by the Spanish company Sacyr, culminated in 2016 with a third lane of locks that allows ships carrying up to 14,000 containers to pass through, triple the number that could pass through its 80 kilometers until then. It is estimated that today 6% of world trade passes through this great infrastructure.

However, in 2016 the impact of the climate crisis was already evident throughout Central America, even in a country with so much rainfall. Scientists from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned, and continue to do so, of serious droughts and extreme phenomena. The Panamanian Government itself recognizes unflattering scenarios.

According to the Panamanian Ministry of the Environment, minimum nighttime values ​​project temperature increases of up to 4.8 °C by 2030 in areas near the coasts, where large hydroelectric plants are located, and up to 3.6 °C in the center. . “This increase is associated with effects on plant photosynthesis and less time for the earth to cool, which will harm human health and increase pathogenic pests, impacting agricultural production,” they say.

In addition, deforestation in one of the most forested countries on the continent is added to the drought. The strip of the canal was returned by the United States, highly deforested, due to urban growth and intensive and uncontrolled agricultural activity that contaminated rivers and eroded the soil. 15 years ago, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP), which administers it, launched a program to support coffee cultivation in order to increase the volume of water and reduce erosion. “That will make us more resilient to climate change,” said Orlando Acosta in Madrid.

But it's not enough. And proof of this is that during the electoral campaign on May 5 to elect president in Panama, the water crisis has been very present. The candidates' only proposal is to build a new large reservoir to guarantee maritime traffic, after last summer it had to be reduced from 38 to between 27 and 25 ships a day. Now, after the recent rains, it is at 32. But is it a solution to have more reservoirs if it does not rain enough?

“The channel continues to examine other alternatives. It would not just be a reservoir, but it is being evaluated by the United States Corps of Engineers and a solution has not yet been revealed. In any case, the Panama Canal cannot decide on works that are outside its basin jurisdiction, it is something that depends on the Government. In these elections everyone has had it on their agenda as an important issue,” Acosta acknowledged.

In any case, the climate crisis is accompanied, as in all of Central America, by high deforestation in the central regions of the country: more than 80,000 hectares of forest have been lost in 12 years due to the expansion of cities. These fellings cause the rains to wash away the mineral layers of agricultural soils. “What was fertile and fruitful land becomes a huge piece of cement,” denounces researcher and economist Rolando Gordon Cantó, in statements collected by the University of Panama.

At the same time, the agricultural frontier is expanding with tropical crops that are sold thousands of kilometers away. For example, pineapple monocultures are increasing, whose exports to the EU, and specifically to Spain, continue to increase. “All sectors demand water. The canal, agriculture, cities... and mining,” denounce the environmentalists of the Ya es Ya organization.

This organization emphasizes the crisis of the Cobre Panamá mine, a concession in the hands of the Canadian First Quantum Minerals for years that unleashed a social, political and economic storm at the end of 2023. It is the largest open-pit mine of this mineral in Latin America and the environmental impacts of its activity, especially on water, caused its stoppage by court order.

Environmentalists and scientists have pointed out that Cobre Panama compromises the integrity of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, an area of ​​mature forests, with little intervention, which are a source of great water wealth because rivers originate there that flow into the Caribbean and the Panamanian Pacific. According to the multinational, the mine is only “a small dot” in that corridor, but from these other areas it is reported that it has fragmented the route of critical species, such as jaguars and harpy eagles, and its water consumption is excessive.

Isaac Ramos, a biologist at the Environmental Advocacy Center in the country, points out that there has been very poor management of its wastewater, generating contamination in a large area. Also, the person in charge of the Canal, Ricaurte Vásquez, in a televised interview, warned that “some people believe that mining will reduce the amount of water available.”

Thus, the outlook for Canal, on its 110th anniversary, does not seem likely to improve in the current climate context. “We will have to wait for the new executive's decisions,” explains Acosta. Hence, in Colombia, President Gustavo Petro has once again brought to the fore the construction of a railway that links the Pacific and Atlantic by land, as was done in the past by Panama, and thus compete with the canal.

It would be a corridor that would start from the Antioquian coasts of the Gulf of Urabá, where two gigantic ports are being built, to those of Chocó. There has also been talk again of the 'megachannel' that Nicaragua intends to start with the support of a Chinese potentate, which would be three times longer than the Panamanian one. The difficulty: it also requires water and Nicaraguans do not have, nor are they expected to have, any surplus of it.