High & Dry

National Plan for Water Safety 2015-2050

Extreme weather conditions in Panama and the entropic response of much of the population are highlighting the urgent need to formulate a thorough review of water utilization practices in the rainfall-dependent country.

Drought conditions throughout Central America have continued as a result of El Niño, leading to severe losses in Panama’s agricultural sector for the second consecutive year. Panama, which is ranked among the top five countries in the world for its annual rainfall and has naturally always counted on an abundance of water, is now seeing the need to introduce new water management strategies and recently began formulating a new National Plan for Water Security 2015-2030.

Estimated losses for the agricultural sector in 1H2016 have been estimated at $102 million. Panama’s energy sector has also been significantly affected by water shortages. Panama relies on hydropower to meet 62.6% of its electricity needs, which is growing at an annual rate of 8% according to 2012 World Bank statistics. In addition, Panama relies on vast quantities of water from rainfall to maintain adequate water levels in the canal, the expansion of which naturally calls for greater requirements. Panama now faces the decision of whether to use the water for human consumption, sanitation, the canal, agricultural processing, or farming.
El Niño is a weather phenomenon that results from water variations in ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific, causing unusually warm weather and reduced precipitation. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador as well as part of the Caribbean have also been affected. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the impacts of this year’s El Niño in the region are worse than last times, leading to growing water insecurity in the region.

Panama has realized that it can no longer rest on its laurels and earlier this year began public consultations on the formulation of an unprecedented new plan of action. The National Plan for Water Safety 2015-2050 is based on the current and future expected demand for water based on population growth rates, and counts on the involvement of a number of parties including the Panama Canal, the Ministry of Agricultural Development, and the National Secretariat of Energy.

Under the theme “Water for All,” the plan has five priority areas. These main points of attention are universal access to quality water and basic sanitation, water for inclusive economic growth, effective management of water-related risks, 52 healthy watersheds to ensure availability and quality of water, and water sustainability.
Further details of the plan have yet to be unveiled, but it represents only a part of Panama’s water management strategy going forward. Other solutions include increased efforts in water recycling and innovative irrigation solutions. In this regard, Panama is hoping to learn from other countries that face similar climatic conditions such as Israel, with which it negotiated a free trade agreement last year.

A desalination plant on the island of Taboga, which is also on technology adopted from Israel, is to be inaugurated this year, and plans to install a similar system in Contadora are underway. Drip and micro-irrigation applications are already being rolled out across the country as well.

However, introducing new technologies will not be sufficient; raising consciousness and behavioral changes through education will also be a major obstacle to adapting to the effects of El Niño. Despite recent bouts of drought in parts of Panama at the start of the year, provinces around the country went ahead with using traditional water canons during the carnival season. Lastly, the government hopes to encourage further investment in research and development in the area of water management technologies as a move in the direction of developing more sustainable long-term natural resource utilization strategies.

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