Charting Change
Charting Change
Charting Change
Charting Change

Agriculture and Environment

Building water-stress resilience in Panama

How researchers are finding better ways to manage the precious resource in a changing climate

Posted by Niki Wilson on June 18, 2019

Diana Gutiérrez (far right) takes measurements of a river during a community water monitoring day in El Guayabal, Panama. (Photo: CATHALAC)

As a child growing up in the parched interior of Panama’s La Villa River basin, there were years when Diana Gutiérrez watched her family’s crops and livestock perish due to water shortages. The area, also known as the Dry Arch, is part of the Central American Dry Corridor, which also blankets parts of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

In this irrigated agricultural heartland of Panama, water shortages not only mean a reduction in crop and livestock production, but also an increase in pollution and water contamination as chemicals and microbes accumulate in stagnant or slower-moving streams. Bacterial diseases increase, too, as water to wash both equipment and people becomes scarce. These are the reasons why Gutiérrez, now 24, decided to study biology at university. “I wanted to have the knowledge that would help improve the situation,” she says.

Through a youth leadership program run by El Centro del Agua del Trópico Húmedo para América Latina y el Caribe, or CATHALAC, a Panama City-based organization that promotes sustainable development of water resources and the environment, Gutiérrez travels to communities in the basin to raise awareness about water issues and how to mitigate them. It’s crucial work. In the Dry Arch, rainfall is irregular at best, and in El Niño years it can drop by 30 to 40 per cent. These dry periods are often accompanied by lengthy heat waves that decimate subsistence crops such as corn and rice. The 2015 drought was so severe that the Panamanian government declared a state of emergency. Subsequent crop losses between 2015 and 2016 hit the economy hard, at an estimated cost of US$72 million.

In addition, the area is proving to be particularly vulnerable to climate change. Heat waves are now longer and harder to predict, while tropical storms in the rainy season are ramping up in intensity and frequency, with equally devastating effects.

Yet despite all this, Tania Campos, CATHALAC’s chemistry and environment specialist, says the main problem is not the amount of water available in the La Villa River basin, but how it’s managed. Campos is working on a project funded by IDRC and Panama’s Ministry of Environment that aims to improve the use and distribution of water as the climate changes. She says inefficient management has facilitated extreme scarcity in some areas and pollution and poor water quality in others. “These problems are exacerbated by a lack of institutional coordination, where action plans tend to be redundant and they lack monitoring and evaluation,” she adds.

To tackle these issues, CATHALAC is helping develop municipal action plans that guide the cities of Chitre and La Villa de los Santos and other communities in the river basin toward doing a better job of managing water resources. Part of that process has been to collect data that will help create evidenced-based plans. For example, Campos and her colleagues conducted research to estimate the basin’s water balance (the amount of water flowing in and out), identified new underground reservoirs and studied reforestation plans to mitigate water scarcity.

The sustainability of these action plans depends on people such as Gutiérrez, who Campos says consolidate the work of CATHALAC, whether by teaching people about microbial contamination or helping conduct CATHALAC’s water-quality monitoring projects. During such work, Gutiérrez and others have acquired valuable skills for future research, including learning how to use drones to map resources in the basin. “These young leaders can now integrate themselves into the main institutions and community-based organizations that conserve and manage water resources in the La Villa River basin,” says Campos

And Gutiérrez is just getting started. While new environmental policies and programs to improve community-government dialogue on water issues are emerging, she notes there’s still a long way to go. “We ought to build efficient water storage systems,” she says. “And make state policies about water conservation that reach the communities.” She also wants to see Panama adopt a culture of water conservation, and believes this will require an investment in education. “We have to introduce environmental education at an early age,” she says. “As a society, we have to teach children how to take care of our resources.”

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