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Panama Canal warns of sharper El Niño draft limits

SINGAPORE — The Panama Canal Authority said the El Niño weather phenomenon is forcing draft restrictions in the waterway, but the impact of those restrictions on ship transits has been limited. A pinch will come within three weeks, however, if there isn’t enough rainfall, its chief warned.

“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. It will start to hit us at a 44 foot draft; the next 20 days are critical,” Jorge Luis Quijano, administrator and chief executive of the Panama Canal Authority, said in a recent interview.

While the authority has imposed its draft restriction on the canal’s enlarged locks, which are able to handle ships with up to 14,800 TEU in capacity, the old locks, which are limited to ships with capacities of up to 5,000 TEU, remain unaffected.

The canal authority is working on plans for a third water reservoir, which would help replenish the locks system during dry weather as well as supply drinking water to Panama’s population of 4 million. Quijano said the authority will make a decision on whether to proceed by the end of the year, adding that such a project would take about four years to complete.

“If we are going to have more transits, then you will have to have more water,” Quijano told in July.

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