Severe Dry Season Causes Draft Reduction for Panama Canal

As a severe dry season hits Central America, the Panama Canal Authority has announced a fifth draft reduction for ocean vessels passing through the new locks, effective April 30.

Waterway authorities reported that December 2018 to March 2019 has been the driest period in the last 106 years due to the El Niño effect in the Pacific Ocean.  During El Niño events, rain patterns change and cause widespread droughts.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts there is an 80% chance of El Niño continuing into June.

With less rainfall this spring in Gatun Lake, the canal’s watershed, the Panama Canal Authority has been forced to reduce the maximum allowable draft for ships that use the wider “Neopanamax” locks, which opened in 2016.  While larger container ships can still transit the canal, they have to do so with less freight.

“The Panama Canal has taken measures in order to reduce the impact of the [dry] season by 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,” announced Carlos Vargas, ACP’s Vice President for Water and Environment.

Ocean carriers have been warned that the maximum draft for transiting the new locks after April 30 will be restricted to 44 feet of Tropical Fresh Water (FTW), instead of the normal 50 feet TFW.  Drafts over 13.41 meters will be waived for transit, subject to the water level of Gatun Lake and safety conditions at the canal.

Ocean Network Express (ONE) has announced that the reduced draft will directly impact the maximum weight that can be loaded on some of their All-Water Services, namely EC1, EC2, and EC3, and that impacted services may face weight and/or space constraints, which may result in possible booking rejections and/or rollovers during this period.

Yang Ming Line has issued the following weight limitations below for their EC2 and EC3 services.

SERVICE 20’ NW/ GW 40’ NW/ GW 40’ HQ NW/ GW 45’ HQ NW/GW
EC2 4.6/ 7 tons 10 /14 tons 9.8/ 14 tons 8.8/ 14 tons
EC3 6.6/ 9 tons 14/ 18 tons 13.8/ 18 tons 12.8/ 18 tons

          **For SAV/ORF shipment, EC4 service via Suez Canal is an option.


“The impacted services may face space and weight limitations.  Rollover or booking rejection may occur,” said Joseph So, Managing Director at COHESION Worldwide.  “Personally, I think Southern [China] and Hong Kong may not have a very serious impact, as we mostly ship lighter cargo than Central and Northern China.  However, no matter in Central, Southern and Northern [China], we can still arrange all water shipments via Suez Canal.   In Hong Kong and the South, we have choices like:

  • EC1, EC2 and EC3 (THE ONE)
  • SEAP (OOCL)”

For more details, please see the announcements from ONE and also the Authority of Panama Canal.

Shippers should plan accordingly and should confirm verified gross mass weight limitations to avoid disruptions to their supply chain.

We will continue to monitor the situation at the Panama Canal and advise our customers of any updates.

Should you have any questions or concerns, please contact your sales account representative or booking agent for additional information.