The Panama Canal links the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It is an essential gateway for ships traveling from countries in Asia to the United States. Billions of dollars worth of goods travel through the canal every year, with the route accounting for nearly 60 percent of container cargo transported from Asia to the East Coast of the US last year.
But the goods passing through the canal aren't bound just for the US; they're headed for Europe, too. Experts say the bottleneck could have dire consequences on the global shipping industry, especially if it lasts through the Christmas holiday period.
Low water levels mean fewer vessels a day can pass through. The Panama Canal Authority says ships arriving without reservations now have to wait up to 10 days, twice as long as usual.
The canal is affected by drought because it depends on freshwater, namely rainwater pumped in from nearby lakes, to operate. This water is used in a lock system to raise and lower ships, allowing them to traverse the rolling terrain between the two oceans. Some 200 million liters are needed to move a single ship through the locks.
The canal's deputy administrator said in late August that unless the area gets heavy rain soon, restrictions on the flow of ships could be kept in place for a year.
The issue is affecting the world's leading shipping companies, including Japan's NYK Line. According to Captain Toshimitsu Kamiya, the firm has been forced to lighten loads on its vessels so they can travel in shallower waters.
There is hope for some relief in the coming months as the rainy season in Panama typically lasts until December. But if water levels are still low by then, Kamiya says this shipping disruption could go down as the worst in history.