From Panama to Suez, the great Canals protecting global trades

Wars and droughts reduce the activities of two of the largest and most strategic global infrastructures.

World trade is tied to the fate of the major canals. Suez, through which about 12% of all global traffic passes, and Panama, through which 5% of the goods traveling around the world navigate. These are incredible infrastructures, built by man overcoming complex challenges, as was the case with the New Panama Canal built by the Webuild Group and thus opened to the traffic of large ships, crucial for ensuring the exchange of goods from one continent to another.

However, in these weeks, the traffic through the major canals – symbols of modernity and development – is being severely tested due to external factors, from wars that reduce the efficiency of the Suez Canal, reverting the hands of history back in time to when this great infrastructure did not yet exist, to drought in the Central American isthmus, which imposes a limitation on traffic in the old Panama Canal, shifting the growing demand for maritime transport to the new canal.

Suez, the route under siege by Houthi rebels

The Suez Canal is one of the great global infrastructures. The 12% of global freight traffic passing through its waters equates to a commercial value of $1 trillion. Crossing Suez is crucial for reaching the Mediterranean from the eastern coast of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Asia without having to circumnavigate the African continent. However, the side effects of the war between Hamas and Israel have led to an intensification of attacks on merchant ships traversing the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Red Sea by Houthi rebels from Yemen.

At the same time, on the opposite front and therefore on the coast of Somalia, the number of pirate attacks on transiting ships is increasing. Real risks, so much so that large shipping companies like Maersk have announced that they are considering changing routes, forcing their ships to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, thus adding 3,200 extra miles or 9 more days of travel. The impact would be significant because through Suez not only do commercial goods of secondary necessity pass. In the Canal, food products such as wheat transit, as well as a considerable amount of oil, whose exchanges through the isthmus doubled after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Panama, drought slowing Canal activities

Transits through the Panama Canal are not jeopardized by wars but by the unforeseen effects of erratic climate. In fact, despite being at the end of the rainy season, the entire region is severely affected by drought.

Last January 7, Lake Gatun, which feeds the Canal, reached one of the lowest depth levels in history, namely 1.8 meters below normal. This has had evident effects on the passage of ships through the old system, dating back to 1914 and lacking the water recycling basins adopted by the new canal: from November to the end of January, in fact, the number of transits decreased considerably, and the Authority controlling it was forced to issue a series of restrictions on passages, opening the passage of smaller ships in the new canal, dedicated to large New Panamax ships.

The reduction in the number of passages has inevitably rewritten the rules of transits, which are usually entrusted to auctions, meaning the companies that pay the most can surpass the others. In November, the auction for a crossing reached the record figure of $4 million, while today the average price revolves around $1.1 million. This has also convinced many companies to change route, perhaps passing through the Cape of Good Hope, thus increasing the travel time between the United States and the Gulf of Mexico and Asia by two weeks.

The climate crisis has confirmed the innovative scope ensured by the New Panama Canal built by the Webuild Group. The work, designed and implemented with a focus on sustainability (the technical solutions adopted allow, for example, to save 60% of the water used for ship traffic and to maintain the maximum draught of the ships even in critical conditions of the lake like the current ones), has tripled the loading capacity of ships crossing the isthmus compared to that of the old Canal built in 1914. And so, already in the first years of operation, the New Canal has broken all transit records with an annual average of over 2,700 vessels. This is why through its huge locks, 427 meters long and 55 meters wide, not only the destinies of world trade pass, but also those of Panama and its economy deeply anchored to the successes of its Canal.