Panama catches up

Readers may have come across news stories concerning the conversion of petrol pumps in Panama from US gallons to litres. In this article, Metric Views aims to provide some background information.

This story appeared on the web site of ‘Newsroom Panama’ on 20 April 2013:

Further information is provided in this blog article:

Note the photos of the petrol station before and after the change. Panama uses the US dollar as its currency. The official name for it is the balboa, but it is the same bank note, and in practice people use the ‘dolar’ and ‘balboa’ interchangeably. So that makes the price of regular petrol in Panama equivalent to about 72 p/litre.

We at Metric Views were curious about US influence in Panama, a country which is unfamiliar to many in the UK. We decided to investigate further.

Wikipedia states:

“Panama broke with Spain in 1821 and joined a union of Nueva Grenada, Ecuador, and Venezuela, named the Republic of Gran Colombia. When Gran Colombia dissolved in 1831, Panama and Nueva Granada remained joined, becoming the Republic of Colombia. With the backing of the United States, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903, allowing the Panama Canal to be built by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914. In 1977 an agreement was signed for the complete transfer of the Canal from the United States to Panama by the end of the 20th century.”

A treaty between Panama and the US, signed in 1903 shortly after Panama achieved independence from Columbia, provided for the construction of the canal and the creation of a canal zone. This would comprise the canal and an area generally extending five miles on each side of the centre line, but excluding Panama City and Colon, which otherwise would have been partly within the limits of the Canal Zone. The zone would be under US control.

The US scheme for the canal required twin sets of locks at each end to lift vessels to an artificial lake, 85 feet above sea level. It is the dimensions of these locks that limit the size of vessels permitted to transit the canal, known as Panamax. The canal was designed and constructed in US customary units with the locks being 110 feet wide and 1050 feet long with a usable length of 1000 feet.

The Canal Zone, as an entity, ceased to exist on 1 October 1979. The transfer of operation of the canal from the US to Panama took place on 31 December 1999.

In the 1990s, it was forecast that demand for the Canal would exceed its maximum sustainable capacity by 2012, and in 2009 the Canal management published the “New Panamax” standard, that will take effect when a third set of locks, larger than the current two sets, becomes operational in 2015. The new locks on the Atlantic and Pacific entrances will  each consist of three chambers measuring 427 m (1400 feet) long, 55 m wide and 18 m deep. The design-build contract to construct the new locks was won in July 2009 by Grupo Unidos por el Canal, composed of Spain’s Sacyr Vallehermoso, Italy’s Impregilo, Dutch contractor Jan De Nul and Constructora Urbana of Panama.

US consultants were involved in the conception of “New Panamax”, but are not responsible for the construction work, which, as one would expect in the 21st century, is metric. So it is not only the petrol pumps in Panama that provide reasons for optimism.

Viewed from this side of the Atlantic, it comes as no surprise that the departure of the US from the Canal Zone in 1979 and the subsequent transfer of operational control of the Canal would result in a lessening of US influence in Panama. But knowing only too well the inertia that accompanies proposals for changes in weights and measures, Metric Views is pleased to see that in Panama there is now the will to make progress with the adoption of the international system of measures (SI).

We would like to thank the readers who drew our attention to this story.

3 thoughts on “Panama catches up”

  1. Back in around 2007 I spent three weeks in Panama, during which time I hired a car, a Toyota Corolla. All the speed limits were in km/h, the car’s speedometer was in km/h, and the odometer was in km. Distances were signposted in km. In fact, the only aspect of life in Panama that I can remember not being in metric units was when I filled the car up prior to returning it, and the pumps were calibrated in ‘galonnes’ (not sure if I have spelt that correctly). I assumed they were US gallons, but wasn’t sure.

    Pretty well everything else was in metric units, including all the groceries we bought when we stayed in an apartment in Panama City, and a house in David. Now finally that last vestige of US measurement units has gone, I am sure that Panama is virtually 100% metric.


  2. The title of the one article is somewhat in error. It states “Panama Goes Metric”. What it should have stated was “Panama Completes Metric Conversion It Began Eons Ago”. This gives a false indication that Panama never was metric until now.

    Other articles on the subject noted that gasoline/petrol was not the only substance still being marketed using US measures. Food was sold in the markets in pounds and cloth was sold by the yard. All of these have changed too.

    Wikipedia under the article gallon states:

    A German Government report on fuel prices dated 2010/11 stated that the Imperial gallon was used as a unit of measure for fuel in Guyana, Antigua and Barbuda and the United Arab Emirates and that the US gallon was used in Liberia, Belize, Colombia, The Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Myanmar (Burma), Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Puerto Rico and the United States .[14] Since the report was published, the United Arab Emirates (2010),[15] Panama (2013),[16] and Guyana have switched to using litres [17] while Antigua and Barbuda plan to switch over to using litres by 2015.[18] Notwithstanding the German report, Puerto Rico was using litre for the sale of fuel in 2006,[19][20] the metrication order for the change-over from gallons having taken effect in 1980.[21]

    One can see that despite these countries being metric for a very long time, the Americans were able to influence their use of non-metric units in some cases, such as gasoline sales. It is an interesting note, that in the midst of these Latino countries, Costa Rica, didn’t go down the gallon path and unlike their neighbors maintained a fairly prosperous economy. Also, it is interesting to see a renewed effort by these countries to initiate a completion of metrication in the last few years. By 2015 it appears, the UK imperial gallon will be completely out of use world-wide.

    Panama is the first to change out of this nest of countries in that region and was as Derek notes the most under US influence. Yet, is the first to switch over. But metrication it seems from the article is only one of many projects being implemented by the present leader to modernise.

    Ricardo Martinelli, the current president of Panama, promised changes in Panama during his political campaign. The guy has kept his word and is busy making all kinds of “cambios” in the country in a very short period of time. I haven’t seen so many changes in Panama in my lifetime. It’s absolutely mind-boggling. Good Day.

    Obviously all the changes are positive as unlike the US & UK, there is no grumbling or complaining coming from the native population nor is there any threat or desire to form a Panama anti-metric club as one finds in the US & UK.

    It will be interesting to see when the rest of the Latino countries still clinging to USC measures takes Panama’s example and completes the change.


  3. A few years ago, Business Daily Review provided this ‘US centric’ view of the Canal expansion project:
    “More than half the $5.25 billion budgeted for the expansion of the Panama Canal — $3.35 billion — will be spent on new single-lane, three-step locks at the Atlantic and Pacific entrances, as well as on new channels. The new locks will not replace but augment the existing locks, and allow the canal to handle larger post-Panamax ships and tankers. To connect those locks to existing shipping lanes, nearly 5 miles of channels will be excavated. The current route through Gatun Lake will also be deepened by 5 ft. and widened, from today’s 500 ft. minimum, to 920 ft. on straightaways and 1200 ft. in the turns. Gatun Lake will then be raised 1.5 ft., providing an extra 550 million gal. of water each day for the locks and alleviating concerns that canal expansion will tax water supplies. About 130 million tons will be excavated over the next seven or eight years, more than half the amount removed during 34 years of French and U.S. digging. Dry excavation could begin this year; work on the new locks could start in 2008 and on Gatun Lake in 2011.”
    The acceptance of a bid from an international consortium on a ‘design and build’ basis should now be helping with the metric transition.


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