Ships are facing long delays at the Panama Canal – one of the world’s busiest trade routes linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – as shallow water levels caused by drought conditions have reduced the number of vessels able to pass through it, according to a report by The Guardian.

The state-owned Panama Canal Authority (ACP), which manages the 80km canal, had introduced restrictions on the route due to the drought, the 15 August report said.

A favoured route for many shippers as it usually reduced cost and transit times – especially for large retailers and energy companies trading between China and the rest of Asia and the USA – the canal faced “unprecedented challenges, the ACP was quoted as saying.

In late July, the ACP reduced the number of vessels passing through the waterway each day from 36 to 32 and had also introduced restrictions on the permitted maximum depth of ships.

“Given the prolongation of the effects of the dry season and fulfilling its responsibility to offer a reliable and sustainable service, … as of this date, it [the ACP] will maintain a draft of 44ft or 13.41M during the coming months, as long as weather conditions do not vary significantly from our current projections,” the ACP said in a statement on its website on 25 July.

A series of depth restrictions had operated in the canal since the beginning of the year due to drought conditions, which authorities had hoped would ease by the start of the Central American country’s rainy season, an earlier report by Reuters on 22 June said.

The latest restrictions had led to a bottleneck of ships waiting to cross the canal and had also led to companies seeking alternative routes, The Guardian wrote.

Live maritime tracking websites recorded about 140 vessels waiting near the canal on 14 August, a considerable increase from the 90 shops usually seen in the area during the May-December period, the report said.

In the week prior to the 15 August report, the ACP announced it had temporarily changed its reservation rules to permit more ships without a booking to travel through the canal.

The measures, which were due to remain in place until 21 August, limited the reservations available for vessels passing through the canal’s older locks – used by smaller ships – to make room for those waiting without reservations, the report said.

“Through regular updates, transparent dialogue, and close collaboration with shipping lines and stakeholders, we strive to manage expectations and provide real-time information that enables our customers to make informed decisions,” Panama Canal administrator Ricaurte Vasquez Morales was quoted as saying.

Weather-related problems had been building at the canal for some time, prompting the ACP to pledge to save water during the rainy months, although it had said that the economic impact was unavoidable, The Guardian wrote.