Panama Canal marks 20 years of US han­dover amid wa­ter cri­sis

Orlando Sentinel - - WALL STREET REPORT - By Juan Zamorano

PANAMA CITY — Panama marked the 20-year an­niver­sary Tues­day of the turnover of the Panama Canal, now amid a wa­ter cri­sis that threat­ens the vi­a­bil­ity of the wa­ter­way.

De­clin­ing rain­fall and ris­ing tem­per­a­tures have re­duced the level of fresh­wa­ter lakes that fill the locks of the Panama Canal and al­low boats to tran­sit be­tween the Pa­cific and the At­lantic.

While Panama has been suc­cess­ful at run­ning — and ex­pand­ing — the canal af­ter the U.S. handed over con­trol, it now must face a new chal­lenge: to find a new source of wa­ter for the locks.

The an­niver­sary of the Dec. 31, 1999, han­dover comes amid months of wa­ter-depth re­stric­tions that limit what the cargo ships us­ing the wa­ter­way can carry.

Changes in cli­mate — and a re­cent ex­pan­sion to al­low big­ger ships to pass — may have fi­nally caught up with the canal’s 105-year-old de­sign, in which the ar­ti­fi­cial Gatun Lake func­tions as part of the ship pas­sage and also pro­vides drink­ing wa­ter for about half the coun­try.

“The rain­fall over the canal wa­ter­shed is just not enough to keep the ex­panded canal op­er­at­ing, much less any fur­ther ex­pan­sion,” said an­a­lyst and hy­dro­elec­tric dam ex­pert Jose Is­abel Blan­don. “Panama has to start look­ing at this problem, be­cause the lakes also pro­vide drink­ing wa­ter for 2 mil­lion peo­ple.”

All that doesn’t mean that Pana­ma­ni­ans aren’t happy about the han­dover, and their an­niver­sary. Pres­i­dent Lau­rentino Cor­tizo hoisted a gi­ant Pana­ma­nian flag out­side the canal head­quar­ters Tues­day.

The han­dover, Cor­tizo said, “de­mol­ished a bar­rier that di­vided the coun­try,” a ref­er­ence to the fact the canal runs through the mid­dle of Panama. “What our peo­ple achieved was union.”

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