Column: The Panama Canal is running dry. That’s the U.S.’ fault and the U.S.’ problem

A cargo ship leaving the Panama Canal
A cargo ship headed toward the Pacific Ocean after passing through the Panama Canal. Officials recently limited traffic because water to fill the locks was scarce.
(Agustin Herrera / Associated Press)

A slight competition between transit and human consumption.

That’s how Ricaurte Vásquez Morales, an official with the Panama Canal Authority, described a possible water crunch in the region as a historic drought threatens the trade route he oversees.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

Although the canal connects two oceans, its operation depends upon fresh water from a nearby lake, which has been dwindling during a 20-year drought. As a result, there is not as much water for vessels to sail through — or for local communities to drink.

In August, the average wait time for ships went from less than a week to nearly a week and a half, creating a bottleneck. At one point more than 160 ships were hanging out waiting for a Panama official to swipe right.

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Today that number is down, but … part of the relief came from using more fresh water.

Did I mention the region is experiencing a 20-year drought?

It’s similar to the two-decade drought that has choked the Colorado River and left Nevada’s Lake Mead at 34% of capacity.

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Except this lake in Panama is key for global supply chains — as if they need one more problem. The pandemic’s effect on the supply chain was a major contributor to last year’s spike in inflation worldwide. The canal sees roughly 40% of global cargo ship traffic. I wonder what’s going to happen to prices if Panama doesn’t get more rain soon?

I also wonder what’s going to happen to the local residents facing a “slight competition” for fresh water.

According to NASA, this summer was the hottest on record. Last month was the fifth straight in which ocean temperatures set record highs. The United Nations estimates that the increase in natural disasters displaces more than 20 million people worldwide each year.


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Evidence of human influence on climate change is so pronounced even Fox News moderators brought it up during the first debate of the Republican presidential primary season.

Sadly Vivek Ramaswamy provided the most memorable response: “The climate change agenda is a hoax.”

What’s even sadder is he got a bump in the polls afterward.

Meanwhile Panama officials plan to spend $2 billion to redirect more rivers toward the man-made lake to supply the man-made canal. We’re changing the Earth and the atmosphere.

Some hoax.

The 50 million gallons of fresh water used to fill the locks of the canal are lost to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The fresh water sources involved with moving the vessels also supply drinking water for half the country. And diverting water will have repercussions on the ecosystem … if anyone still cares about that sort of thing.

In the meantime, Panama is expected to lose out on tens of millions of dollars in revenue because of the bottleneck.

Two out of every three ships that use the canal are connected to the U.S. economy. It’s the cheapest way to move grain and other food supplies.

There are no easy answers. But it is a problem the U.S. helped create, and too many powerful people in the U.S. are still making it worse. The climate change deniers in Congress and in the Republican presidential field would be at the top of that list.

Electing officials who tell us what we want to hear doesn’t change what is. Last year Lake Mead’s water levels were so low that local authorities found bodies that had been dumped there decades earlier. Now cargo ships risk running aground in the Panama Canal.

Climate change deniers who prefer to look away are running out of places to look. For people in power in the U.S., that’s not only counterproductive but also immoral. Our economy has a direct effect on how fresh water is used in Panama. And remember, it wasn’t just American ingenuity that built the canal, but also American imperialism. Not until 1999 did we relinquish control.

Now changes in the climate — ones that U.S. industrialization and consumption fueled — may trigger a “slight competition” between transit and human consumption. Or between capitalism and humanity, as it ever was.

I’m not saying the answers are easy to find. But the least we can do is elect leaders who acknowledge we are part of the problem.


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