Against all predictions, the Panama Cacal has become overworked and heavily congested in recent months. The reason is an unexpectedly heavy flow of oil, banana, coal, and grain shipments through the canal's locks.
The result is an increasing number of calls by world shipping for either an expanded Panama Canal or an entirely new waterway through Panama.
Neither alternative is likely to come quickly, however. Even modest Panama- proposed improvements in the present waterway will require at least two years to complete -- at a cost of $30 million. (As part of this, the White House last week approved the expenditure of $10.2 million for new locomotives and tugboats.)
Moreover, Deputy Canal Administrator Fernando Manfredo says that these and other scheduled improvements would merely raise the daily average of 37 ships using the canal to a maximum of 44.
That would not entirely relieve the present traffic glut at the canal. More than 140 ships are currently anchored at colon on the Atlantic and Panama City on the Pacific awaiting passage through the 51-mile waterway. Each has to wait about four days before transitting the canal.
Last year's forecasts that use of the canal was likely to decline during the 1980s have proved totally inaccurate so far.
There are many reasons, but most observers cite significant new factors in world trade: Venezuela tripled its oil shipments to Japan in the past year; Ecuador has a bumper crop of bananas, while banana production in Central America has slipped; and Japan is acquiring increasing amounts of US scrap metal. Other factors are a coal strike in Australia, which has prompted Japan to order larger-than-expected grain shipments from New Orleans to both china and Mexico.
Compounding the situation has been an increase in shipping between Australia and Europe. Then, too, since only US flag tankers are permitted by law to carry Alaskans North Slope oil -- and most of the available US tanker fleet is medium-sized -- more ships are being used to transport the oil.
As if this were not enough, the number of big tankers, bulk loading vessels, and giant ore carriers using the waterway has increased dramatically. Their very size adds to the problem since it takes eight locomotives to nudge the big vessels through each of the three sets of locks -- while an average- size freighter requires merely four. Sometimes two small freighters can be put through the locks at the same time, a consequent timesaver.
The congestion at the canal is causing costly delays for shippers, which will be reflected in higher consumer prices the world over. Some cargo -- bananas, for instance -- is particularly perishable.
It is generally assumed that a new waterway will eventually be constructed, paralleling to some extent the present facility. A Japanese consortium has outlined such a project. But even it construction were begun immediately on this second canal, it would be six or seven years at least before it could be used. At the moment, the plan is merely on the drawing board.