When people in the United States talk about refugees from south of the border, they’re often framed as “economic refugees”. Much of the time, this is part of a broader effort to de-legitimize their claim to asylum, and it generally ignores why their home countries might be having economic troubles (the U.S. has often played an outsized role in devastating countries in South and Central America). It also ignores another problem primarily caused by outside forces – global warming.
See, the ways in which global warming is harming poor countries in the “global south” rarely actually make the news in the US, so far too few people are aware that one of the biggest things that Central American refugees are fleeing is drought. Just as parts of the US have now been in a state of semi-permanent drought for what feels like over a decade now, Central America has been far, far too dry, but instead of being part of the United States, these countries spent the last few decades being under attack by the United States. This is why, incidentally, the refugees are willing to try to cross a border where they know government agents are trying to kill them – the alternative is starvation, and the horrible choices made to avoid starvation. Advocates for climate action have been warning for ages that global warming would drive a refugee crisis, and it has been doing just that for years now.
That drought is also, now, having a consequence that I did not foresee, even though I should have.
Remember the chaos that ensued in 2021, when a cargo ship got stuck, blocking passage through the Suez Canal?
Now, a massive flotilla of ships is currently stuck in the world’s worst traffic jam at the Panama Canal — and the end of this new watery pile-up could be at least a few weeks away.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, the famous human-dug canal has more than 200 ships waiting to pass through it as its transit continues to be stymied thanks to the worst drought it’s experienced in a century.
The 50-mile-long canal, as the report notes, relies on rainwater to replenish it. When it doesn’t rain enough, the authorities that control the canal have to reduce traffic through it to conserve water, and those that are allowed through have to pay higher fees to do so.
Daily traffic is currently capped at 32 ships, which is down from the prior average of about 36 when there’s enough water for the canal — which uses more than 50 million gallons of water per day — to operate at full capacity.
I really should have seen this coming, because one of my favorite nonfiction books is The Tapir’s Morning Bath, which follows the strange adventures of the scientists on Barro Colorado Island, which was formed when a big section of land was flooded, as part of building the Canal. Writing this, I think I want to see if I can find out what research has been coming off of that island, because I’m willing to bet they’ve got things to say about climate change ecology. I guess I had two points in bringing up this book. The first is that you should all read it, and the second is to emphasize that the Panama Canal is not like the Suez Canal. The Suez is saltwater all the way through, and with the exception of one saltwater lake, it’s a straight canal dug by people.
Panama has some of that, of course, but a huge chunk of the “canal” is a sprawling, man-made lake:
As the drought worsened last month, canal administrator Ricaurte Vásquez Morales said during a press event that traffic restrictions may remain in place until the end of the year and added that it will cost the canal an estimated $200 million in lost revenue.
Beyond the regulatory and financial concerns associated with this massive backup, Vásquez Morales suggested that the drought also illustrates one of the biggest existential threats facing the canal as well.
“We have to find other solutions to remain a relevant route for international trade,” he said during the July press summit. “If we don’t adapt, we are going to die.”
Hey, that’s what I’ve been saying! We have all the technology, resources, and knowledge to deal with the climate crisis, but if we don’t use it – if we don’t adapt to what’s happening – we are going to die.