The excitement raised by the launch of the Panama Canal’s expansion and the astonishment of some 40 thousand individuals that were moved as they watched a gigantic Cosco Shipping Panama sail by are still palpable. However, as the celebrations die down, we must focus on the challenges Panama faces in the wake of this new era. Without question, one of its main challenges is water resource management. President Varela made it very clear in his inauguration speech, when he said that his administration would initiate studies to develop works that guarantee enough water for human consumption, uninterrupted operation of the canal, and sustainable development.
Water availability is fundamental for human health and for countless economic activities, such as agriculture, tourism, hydroelectric power generation, and for operating the Canal itself. However, forecasts based on climate change indicate that the Panama Canal’s watershed will suffer a major reduction in average precipitation and therefore in water availability for all its uses. Likewise, the recurrence of extreme events such as droughts or floods will become increasingly more frequent. Let us not forget the serious flood of La Purísima in December 2010, which left Panama City without water for 50 days. In parallel, even the most conservative estimates for the next ten years show significant increases in water demand for domestic use, as well as for operating the canal.
In light of this situation, efficient water resource management is crucial for ensuring sustainable water allocation that is compatible with social, economic, and environmental goals. Environmental and sustainability policies are particularly important in the country’s use of water to generate investment in reforestation phases, regulation infrastructure, and in the processes that make water demand management more efficient and effective through the various uses of this resource.
Water is one of the three issues that will be discussed at the 11th Symposium on the Environment, organized by the Industrial Union of Panama (Sindicato de Industriales de Panamá) (SIP). The summit, which took place on July 12th and 13th, brought together the experience and knowledge of various public institutions (the Panamanian Ministry of Environmental Affairs, the Panama Canal Authority), private and labor union entities (SIP, Sumarse), academic institutions (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) and a multilateral organization like the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). We contributed to this debate by showcasing the watershed’s economic value and explaining how to maintain its sustainability for different uses through the studies “The Economic Consequences of Climactic Events in Managing the Panama Canal’s Watershed” and “Managing Watersheds for Ecosystem Services in the Steepland Neotropics.”
Regional research on watershed management –conducted by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and financed by the IDB’s BIO program– analyzes recent watershed management practices, including the Canal’s, and pinpoints a plan of action that is providing positive results. Furthermore, at this event, the Bank also presented Hydro-BID, an integrated and quantitative tool for simulating hydrology and water resource management that is currently being used in Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and Haiti. It will soon be implemented in Panama by the Ministry of Environmental Affairs.
The Panama Canal Expansion project is a major achievement and a source of pride for Panamanians. However, its long-term sustainability will depend on the decisions and actions taken by ruling parties and citizens alike when it comes to managing water as a strategic resource.
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