Christmas in Britain could be at risk this year as the Panama Canal suffers its worst-ever drought, plunging the vital shipping route into a crisis which could last several months.
Dozens of massive container ships carrying presents and festive items including Apple’s new iPhone, TVs, exercise bikes, clothes and tree lights are experiencing delays of up to four weeks as water levels fall.
The congestion in the canal that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans could have a wider impact across the global supply chain – with experts warning that Christmas in the UK and Europe could be impacted.
There could also be a rise in the cost of food and energy prices because grains and fuels are among the major supplies transported through the canal now also experiencing delays.
Experts have warned that the disruptions at the canal are likely to remain in place for ‘some time to come’, with some fearing the restrictions could continue into 2025.
Low water levels outside the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal on November 3 – as Panama faces a severe drought
The Panama Canal Authority is continuing to restrict the number of vessels that pass through the Panama Canal locks as drought has caused water levels at Gatun Lake to drop. Pictured: A container ship passes through the Miraflores Locks
Shipping vessels are seen queuing off of the Panama Canal. The average wait time in the queue has risen from 4.3 days on November 7 to 11.7 this month, Panama Canal Authority data revealed
Nearly 80 ships aiming to pass through the 50-mile-long canal have been met with significant delays. Instead of the 8 to 10 hours it typically takes to transit through, ships are now waiting one to two weeks in line.
Some companies have shelled up as much as $4 million to move to the front of the queue and bypass wait times, FOX Weather reported.
The average wait time in the queue has risen from 4.3 days on November 7 to 11.7 this month, Panama Canal Authority data revealed.
Before the vital shipping route experienced delays, some 38 ships passed through each day.
But with limited water to maintain the freshwater lock system, only 24 ships have been able to cross through each day since November 7, The Mirror reports.
Some ships are even being forced to take huge detours, some even up to a month, through the Suez Canal in Egypt.
It’s understood that the number will plummet to 18 a day from February because of the huge drought.
Many slots are open to book at a fixed price well in advance but a small number are held back for last-minute operations which are sold to the highest bidder.
Companies have the option to pay millions of dollars to jump ahead in the queue if a ship with a booked reservation leaves.
Steve Gordon, the managing director at Clarksons Research, has warned that transit restrictions at the canal not likely to ease any time soon and that disruption ‘could linger into 2025’.
‘Transit restrictions appear likely to remain in place for some time to come, with the rainy season in Panama falling from May to December,’ he told TradeWinds.
However, an unprecedented drought this year has caused water levels at the canal to be the lowest seen at this time of year in 98 years of data.
Forecasts suggest there won’t be much rain in Panama in the coming weeks, meaning the area’s dry season is likely starting early.
The drought, which comes with temperatures already at a 1.2C rise, is being discussed at Cop28, with delegates hoping to agree to keep global warming at a 1.5C limit.
Steven Paton, director of the Physical Monitoring Program at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, said: ‘This is now our third extreme water deficit in the past 25 years. That is a huge red flag.’
Some ships are even being forced to take huge detours, some even up to a month, through the Suez Canal in Egypt. Pictured: The Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal
The delays for shipping containers could make goods, including iPhones, sent from the US west coast to Britain harder to get hold of.
David Jinks, head of consumer research at ParcelHero, said: ‘The result could be shortages of goods and increased prices.
‘There will be a significant impact on a range of products typically carried on the canal in containers, including TVs, mobile phones, exercise bikes, PCs, Christmas sweaters and tree lights.’
In August, more than 200 ships were stuck on both sides of the canal after the number of crossings was capped by authorities amid the drought.
The large vessels, which were likely carrying millions of dollars worth of goods, were trapped with some waiting for weeks to cross.
The effects have led the canal to estimate a reduction in revenues of up to $200 million by 2024.