The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) has said it would increase the number of booking slots available in its Panamax and Neopanamax slots after one of the world’s busiest trade routes had to reduce ship crossings due to a severe drought, Reuters reported.

From mid-January, the state-owned ACP said it would increase transit slots to 24/day, compared to the 18/day it had announced previously, the 15 December report said.

The additional slots would cover the Regulars, Supers and Neopanamax vessel categories, the report said.

The ACP said the changes were based on the current and expected levels of the artificial Gatun Lake, which provides the millions of litres of water necessary to operate the waterway.

Applications for the new slots could be made in the weeks after the report with transits set to begin on 16 January, the authority said.

However, the ACP said it would only allow one booking slot for each customer on a specific date – regardless of when the slot had been booked – due to the ongoing water crisis, although some exceptions tied to auction and competition slots would be made.

Slots were prioritised according to the highest bid in auction processes, full containers, market and customer rankings, with limits and prioritisation continuing until further notice, Reuters wrote.

Panama’s drought, worsened by the El Niño weather phenomenon, had pushed up fees and traffic at the canal, forcing fuel tankers and grain shippers to take longer routes to avoid congestion, the report said.

Options for grain shippers included sailing south around South America or Africa, or using the Suez Canal, according to an earlier Reuters report on 11 December.

However, those longer routes could add up to two weeks to shipping schedules, increasing costs for fuel, crews and freight leases, the report said.

In the second half of October, only five US Gulf grain vessels heading to east Asia transited the Panama Canal, while 33 sailed east to use the Suez Canal instead, according to a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) report.

The ACP’s official data showed that total transits were down 22% in November compared to the previous month, Freight Waves reported.

It was also the first time since the start of the drought that transits were falling at the larger Neopanamax locks as well as at the older, smaller Panamax locks, the 13 December report said.

Transits through the Neopanamax locks dropped 28% in November compared to October, while transits through the Panamax locks fell by 19%.

This time of year is the height of the export season for US farmers when grain cargoes traditionally move via the Panama Canal from the US Gulf to Asia, according to the report.