Editorial, World Water Day

Cocle in March
Dry times in Panama’s Dry Arc. Photo by Eric Jackson.

World Water Day

WHAT? A country set on a narrow isthmus between two oceans, with islands sprinkled in each, with famous rainy season cloudbursts and cloud forests set in several upland areas, has water problems?

Yes, we have several. The intended issue of this worldwide day is the lack of clean fresh water for human consumption, and this is a problem in parts of Panama right at this dry season moment. It’s not our only urgent water issue.

The official forces making noise about water issues in Panama?

First and foremost there is the Panama Canal Authority – the ACP by its Spanish initials – which uses a lot of water every time a ship transits, and which operated on draft restrictions for the first few years of the new locks because of chronic water shortages. They are about to spring a corporate water study on us and very likely use public funds in a publicity campaign that would have them build a new lake to the west of the canal in Colon and perhaps Cocle provinces, and perhaps give the ACP broad powers over the nation’s water supply, notwithstanding what most of those affected want or need.

There is the Ministry of Agricultural Development – MIDA – which sees the water shortages that hobble Panamanian agriculture. They, in turn, are hobbled by reasonable public skepticism fed by things like the bogus Tonosi Valley irrigation project for which Panamanians paid but did not receive, and for which none of those most responsible have been sent to prison. All of that water under the bridge, and all of those dried-up farms, still don’t negate the need for more irrigation water and more modern ways to use it.

There is the National Water and Sewer Institute – IDAAN – a horribly inefficient throughout its history political patronage bureaucracy. There are the generally more efficient local aqueduct organizations, which reasonably dread the thought of their absorption by IDAAN.

Then, from another angle there are the indigenous authorities of Guna Yala, who see island communities in their jurisdiction being displaced by rising seas. Also, mostly clueless municipal governments in the capital and in Colon, which stand to lose low-lying areas of those cities. The proper functioning of their drainage, sewer and water systems is already giving way to inexorably rising seas.

There are rather well known, obvious solutions, and there is room for some innovation that would be in the national interest:

  • Build that new lake for more canal water. Built it big, with high dams that generate electricity, and with a tunnel out the back, through the Continental Divide into the Interior, to siphon water into Cocle and the Azuero Peninsula, and feed Pacific Side aqueducts and irrigation projects when there is water for the canal to spare. And while doing all that, ditch all snobbish notions about throwaway people and be just and generous with those who would be displaced.
  • Build not one or a few huge desalination plants, but chains of small ones along both coasts, which should be connected by water mains into regional and national systems that take sea water and make it fit for human consumption.
  • Build dikes and levees around Panama City and the Colon city center to save them from the sea. Part of that process would have to be to build upon and adjust drains, sewers and water delivery systems that are and increasingly will be affected by slowly rising seas.
  • Build or raise islands in the San Blas Archipelago and other Panamanian island chains, both to save traditional ways of life and to create new development options for this nation.
  • Build natural defenses, both to replace what has been degraded or destroyed and to create what never was. Inland, no more of this privatization that has given us silent teak forests of limited value, but scientifically directed public works that reforest barren lands in order to conserve and increase the water supply, create wildlife habitat and boost the tourism that goes with it and sustainably produce food and plant materials to boost the national economy. Along the shores and up the rivers, replant mangrove forests both as coastal defensive barriers and incubators for seafood, and as parts of tertiary treatment to filter the effluent from sewage treatment plants. Into the seas, build, also under scientific direction, new coral reefs to bolster our coastal defenses and provide habitat for the chains of marine life.
  • Build, develop standards for, register under the Panamanian flag and promote on a worldwide basis a fleet of fresh water tanker ships. Have heavy rains made it such that gates need to be opened at the Gatun Spillway? Fill up water tankers instead, and send the water to where people need it.

Were all that to be done, there would be a lot of jobs created here. We could and reasonably should argue about how to proceed. A national corps of engineers might be the best route around the political caste and their contract skimming. The bottom line for this World Water Day, though, is that solving Panama’s water problems would also alleviate many other woes by putting Panama back to work.


Ann Richards when she was governor of Texas. Wikimedia photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel.

The public does not like you to mislead or represent yourself to be something you’re not. And the other thing that the public really does like is the self-examination to say, you know, I’m not perfect. I’m just like you. They don’t ask their public officials to be perfect. They just ask them to be smart, truthful, honest, and show a modicum of good sense.

Ann Richards

Bear in mind…

Some third person decides your fate: this is the whole essence of bureaucracy.

Alexandra Kollontai

Anything too stupid to be said is sung.


It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.

Mark Twain


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