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Some worrisome environmental aspects of the Panama Canal expansion
by Gonzalo Menéndez G.
Salinization of Gatun Lake
The possibility of Gatun Lake's salinization is real according to the study done by Delft. The effect could be mitigated by periodically flushing the water saving basins into the sea every time they read a maximum permissible level of salinity and refilling them with fresh water. This subject is not explained in detail in the plan. The costs of such operating methods, and the details of how the lake's salinization would be avoided, are important to know. We need to know about the consequences and environmental price we'd have to pay for the locks.
Water needs vs global climate change
Ongoing and forecasted climate changes over the next 100 years point to extreme phenomena, as in torrential rains of short duration during the rainy season and very dry stretches in the dry season. These would translate into greater soil loss and sedimentation in the watershed. This means more dredging and the costs that are associated with it. This information is amply documented around the world, especially by institutions of geat credibility like the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in particular its Fourth Report. In Panama's case, the model suggested in the United Nations Draft Convention on Climate Change was run and the results were published in the First Communication about Climate Change (2000), with the results pointing toward severe climate modifications, which will affect rainfall (see annex pages 118-120 and page xvi of the Executive Summary). The El Niño phenomenon of 1996 obliged the imposition of ship draft restrictions, which led to Chinese demands against Panama. How are we going to confront such situations from the operational and legal perspectives? How much will they cost us?
Development of the north-south axis between the cities of Panama and Colon and its influence on the conservation of the watershed's natural resources
The increasing environmental deterioration of the watershed's north-south axis (Panama - Colon) is obvious. This deterioration affects the mini-watersheds and thus the supply of water to the entire watershed, both in terms of quality and of quantity. The use of the third set of locks supposes an additional volume of water basically coming from the Chagres River watershed. How will this dilemma be confronted? How can the development of this axis be promoted, when so far there has been no special development plan that guarantees sustainable supplies of water resources? Where are the public funds that would allow for this to be done?
Land use in the canal's western watershed and Law 21 of 1997
It's only a few months until the tenth anniversary of the approval of Law 21 on land use and the expected changes in the western watershed still haven't happened. Except for some local projects financed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Panamanian government has not invested in changing the land use from intensive agriculture to agroforestry and forestry as the rules mandate. How can a sustainable water supply be expected in the face of climatic uncertainties if the changes in favor of the water supply by the promotion of forested areas (commercial or otherwise) aren't implemented? Is this contemplated in the expansion project? How?
Risk analysis of contamination by the transit of dangerous materials
Studies about the risks of accidental spills or pollution which allow the risk levels to which the populations of the cities near the Panama Canal to be spelled out in a transparent way are required. These studies could allow a classification of risks for the cargo that passes through the canal.
Environmental impact study
According to the national standards, Article 23 of Law 41 of 1998 and the implementing regulations about environmental impact studies contained in Executive Decree 59 of March 2000: "Activities, works or projects, public or private, which by their nature, characteristics, effects, location or resources can generate environmental risk, require an environmental impact study before the start of their execution, in accordance with the regulations of the present law. These activities, works or projects must be submitted to a process of environmental impact evaluation, including those that are realized in the canal watershed and the indigenous comarcas.
How is the ACP thinking about proceeding with the environmental impact study for the expansion? When? To do this specific information is required to permit the ANAM technicians to do their respective analyses, which supposes sampling, in the dry season and the rainy season, of all the factors that constitute the environmental baseline, including among other things the flora, fauna and water resources; and also a plan for citizen participation. Due to the magnitude of this project there can be no doubt that we're dealing with an environmental impact study of the highest category that exists in national law, Category III. This supposes the presentation of the environmental impact study to a public forum.
The author is an environmental consultant and the former director of the National Environmental Authority (ANAM)
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