Is the Panama Canal Sustainable?

Last Updated: 21 Apr 2020
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The Panama Canal was completed in 1914 by the United States. The 51 mile long route cuts through Panama at the narrowest point between North and South America to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Panama is in Central America between Columbia and Costa Rica.

The Panama Canal

The canal was built to and save ships from Europe and Africa going the entire way around the bottom tip of South America (the red route on the map), to reach western Asia. The canal cuts through Panama and allows most ships to pass through it so save on cost and time (the green route on the map). By building this canal, shipping has been given an enormous advantage, as ships no longer have to sail around the tip of South America to reach either ocean and sailing time is drastically reduced.

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Investigating the natural environment

The climate in Panama is hot and humid, with a prolonged rainy season (May to January) and a short dry season (January to May). The region's normal daily temperature is 26 degrees Celsius and varies little throughout the year, perhaps 2-3 degrees. During the evening hours, however, the temperatures change more considerably, and can fluctuate as much as 6-10 degrees Celsius. There is a climate graph below showing the climatic conditions in Panama.

Climate, rainfall and humidity graphs for Panama

This graph shows that the rainy season does last from May to January and month with the highest rainfall in November with 569mm and the lowest rainfall in February with about 40mm of rain. This graph also shows that the average temperature throughout the year is around 26 degrees. There is very little seasonal variation in temperature but there are large seasonal fluctuations in rainfall. The humidity chart shows that the humidity is also high throughout the year, peaking between June and November, but only varying by 9% over the whole year. So between June and November, there is high humidity, high rainfall and on average, only 5 hours of sunshine a day as apposed to the 8 or 9 hours from January to April.

A Sketch map of the panama region

This map shows the rainforest and where the locks and the reservoirs are located. Man has had to create these reservoirs for the canal to function properly, meaning man has modified the drainage area. In order to make the reservoirs, much of the land has had to be flooded, rainforests and settlements also. This meant that many habitats were destroyed and many animals would have died as a result. Not only this, but substantial amounts of rainforest would have had to have been destroyed, that lay in the canal path and where the afore mentioned reservoirs are, again destroying habitats and killing animals.

Along the route of the canal there is a series of 3 sets of locks that lower and raise the ships on their way to and from Atlantic and Pacific oceans. These locks are called the Gatun, Pedro Miguel and the Mira Flores locks.

At Gatun there are 2 parallel sets of locks each consisting of 3 flights. This set of locks lift ships a total of 26 metres. The locks are constructed from concrete. More than 1.53 million cubic metres of concrete were used in the construction of the Gatun locks alone. The smallest set of locks along the Panama Canal are at Pedro Miguel and have one flight which raise or lower ships 10 metres. The Mira Flores locks have two flights with a combined lift or decent of 16.5 metres.

Investigating the Social Environment

Panama City is the largest city in panama. Its metropolitan area contains nearly one third of the nations inhabitants, about 1 million people. From 1980 to 1990 the city's population grew from 386,300 to 413,000. After 1990 the population again grew rapidly, increasing to 688,927. The city cannot cope with such rapid growth and there isn't enough accommodation for the whole population, so shantytowns start appearing, these are clusters of shacks, which the people build themselves. They make their 'houses' out of anything they can find, corrugated iron, tyres and the like.

These shantytowns accommodate only the poorest of the population as the richer citizens can afford the higher house prices in the city. This rapid urbanisation and the development of the shantytowns makes Panama City much more polluted. The shantytowns sprawl out from the City centre and start to intrude on the rainforests, then posing an ecological threat and threatening the sustainability of the Panama Canal.

Urbanisation level

This graph shows the percentage of urbanisation over the past 15 years and the predicted levels of the next 20 years. According to this graph urbanization is set to increase steadily over the next 25 years.

The Panamanian government are moving people into the rainforest to give them a chance to rebuild lives and to escape the mass urbanisation and unhygienic conditions of the shantytowns. This relieves the congestion in the city and gives people new opportunities.

Investigating the Economic Environment

The Panama Canal is generating a lot of money for the people of Panama; it is not only a strong business and a power source, but a tourist attraction too. Many visitors come to visit the canal and bring a lot of revenue into the area, encouraging businesses to grow and prosper. The ships must pay over 15 hundred dollars to use the canal, so this brings a lot of revenue into the area.

The Panama Canal can make the quality of life increase on one hand, but decrease on the other. The Canal brings a lot of revenue into the area although it can divide the social classes. The Canal creates a richer class, which are the people that profit from the canal, who continue to get richer as the canal brings in more and more money and a poorer class, as they have to move into the rainforest and live off the land with little or no money. It could also introduce crime into the area as the canal creates richer areas, with more valuable things in it, and with the poorer people living close by in the shantytowns, it is an open invitation for crime.

If the Canal had to close, Panama would economically suffer immensely. Its main source of income would have dried up and the country's wealth would go down dramatically as a result. The shipping companies that use the canal would also suffer incalculably as their ships would have to sail around the tip of South America to reach the eastern world. Panama would have massive problems then with urbanisation, as people would flock to the city in hope of jobs, therefore the shantytowns will rapidly increase in size, posing new problems to the city. The Canal and it's reservoirs supply 700 000 people with fresh water. If the reservoirs cease to operate, then these people's water supply will be cut off.


If the Panamanian rainforest is cut down too much, the consequences will be dire. The canal will not be able to function properly as there will not be enough water in the reservoirs to sustain the canal. The tree's roots hold together the soil so if the trees are cut down during deforestation, then the soil becomes loose and with the huge amounts of rain that the area receives much of the soil will be washed away, into the reservoirs that feed the canal. If vast amounts of soil wash into the reservoirs then the soil occupies some of the volume of the reservoir, volume that could have been taken up by water.

This means that the reservoirs cannot hold as much water as they were designed to hold. As the canal relies solely upon these reservoirs, depletion in the amount of water the reservoir could take would harm the canal's efficiency as every ship that travels through the canal takes with it an immense amount of water so there would not be the water available to work the canal, ultimately ensuring the closure of the waterway.


The water in the lakes has been going down because of deforestation. The government have made a new "organic law" that allows the government to have the final say for any projects in the watershed zone. Three million dollars is being set aside to combat any environmental plans and satellite imaging is being set up so the government can view the area on a much larger scale and can see the real extent of the damage. This should enable the government to act quickly if they can see a potential threat. The Government must also regulate urbanisation as a spread of Panama City's unplanned, chaotic urbanization into the watershed would spell disaster for the canal, electricity supplies, and clean drinking water.

However, the government are not perhaps taking the issue as seriously as they should be. In 1995, the government gave permission for a four-lane road to be built in the lower catchment of the watershed, ploughing straight through the national park. The Panama Canal can be sustainable if the correct precautions are taken to ensure that urbanisation and deforestation do not increase any more, otherwise, they will spiral out of control and the panama canal will have to close, ending many, many businesses in the local area and around the world.

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Is the Panama Canal Sustainable?. (2017, Sep 05). Retrieved from

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