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Panama Water Crisis a Global Problem

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Panama Water Crisis a Global Problem

Panama is experiencing a water crisis, with two decades of decreased rainfall and drought resulting in a decline in fresh water. The water crisis is affecting not only the population in Panama with a reduction in available drinking water but also the Panama Canal. With reduced access to water the canal is unable to operate at full capacity which is having a knock-on effect to the amount of trade passing through the canal. Water scarcity, however, is not unique to Panama and countries around the globe have been affected by a reduction in available drinking water including, France, China and South Africa.  UN water expresses that it is unlikely that there will be a global water shortage, however individual countries and regions need to urgently tackle the critical problems presented by water stress. Water needs to be treated as a precious resource which is scarce. Focus needs to be put on managing the demand of fresh water.

Seventy percent of the earth is made up of water, however, only 3 percent of that water is fresh water. Water is a precious resource with some regions, having very limited or no access to fresh water at all. Water scarcity is more often then not caused by pollution, agriculture, population growth and climate change. Pollution to water comes from many sources including pesticides and fertilizers from farms, untreated human wastewater, and industrial waste. As well as people polluting the water by throwing rubbish into rivers and water ways. Agriculture uses most of the world’s accessible freshwater equalling about 70 percent however, due to leaky irrigation systems, inefficient application methods as well as the cultivation of crops which require a large amount of water 60 percent of that water is wasted. Many countries which produce large amounts of crops are close to or have reached their water resource limits; these countries include India, China, Australia, Spain and the United States. The population in the last 50 years has more than doubled. This rapid growth has transformed water ecosystems around the world. Today 41 percent of the world’s population lives in river basins that are under water stress. Water availability is a growing concern as freshwater use continues at unsustainable levels. Not only through drinking and sanitation, the population growth has put pressure on the production of commodities and energy which rely on freshwater to be produced. Increased population means more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, which affects weather patterns globally. With the changes in weather patterns droughts will become more common in some places and floods in other. Glaciers and snowpack’s will disappear all affecting the freshwater supplies. Combined these will make less water available for agriculture, energy generation, cities and ecosystems around the world.

Panama is facing a water challenge despite having one of the highest levels of precipitation and also having more than 500 rivers naturally dividing the territory. Panama has water in abundance however is facing a crisis of running out of water. Not only for drinking water and sanitation but the Panama Canal as well crucial for the national economy. Panama is seeing a gradual decrease in rainfall with the last five years experiencing the worst in two decades. The rainfall in 2019 was 27 percent below average, which has resulted in years of droughts.

The Panama Canal requires 5.2 million cubic meters of water to function correctly. The waterways and artificial reservoirs which supply the canal’s lock mechanism began the dry season of 2020 with a depth of 84 feet, 10 percent short of the amount needed to operate without restrictions. In 2019 the water levels got so low that the canal authority had to implement limits on the amount of cargo that ships could cross with. In 2019 the Panama Canal Authority (PCA) implemented limits on the maximum authorised draft of shops transitioning the locks. The draft of a ship is the vertical distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull. In January the limit was restricted to 49 feet, further reductions were made throughout the year. By July the maximum authorised draft has been reduced to 44 feet in the Neopanamaz locks and 39.5 feet in the Panamaz locks. At the beginning of 2020 the PCA implemented further restrictions on the transit of the canal. The number of slots available for ships will be cut due to droughts and a freshwater charge on ships will be implemented to maintain the thoroughfare’s levels. These actions are tightening access to one of the world’s most important trading routes. The charges were implemented on February 15 which include a fixed charge of $10,000 for any vessel over 125 feet long, as well as a variable surcharge based on the level of Gatun Lake at time of transit. The authority has reported that these measures were being imposed due to a lack of rainfall, negatively affected the supply of water from Gatun Lake. Historically the canal has handled 5 percent of world trade and the restrictions being implemented could damage this as it is limiting an important source of money for the Panamanian economy, as well as for global trade. The ACP are concerned that if rainfall does not rise and the restrictions stay in place ships transiting Pacific-Atlantic waters will opt for other global routes. These routes include the Suez Canal in Egypt or via Arctic transits north of Russia or Canada as polar ice melts. The ACP have said that millions of dollars need to be spent to guarantee the water supply to the canal.

Unfortunately, the situation with the Panama Canal is not all that is affecting Panama and causing a water crisis. There is a pressure on water resources in Panama due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and climate change have all affected the water in Panama. As well Panama has seen a drastic increase in recent years of flooding which contaminates the drinking water. Another aspect affecting the issue of flooding and water reduction is that the forest coverage has decreased significantly. Because forests play an important role in providing clean water, in addition, forests also absorb rainfall, refill groundwater aquifers, slow and filter storm water runoff, reduce floods and maintain watershed stability resilience. As well as a reduced forest in Panama there is also a lack of infrastructure, limiting access to drinking water and sanitation services in non-urban areas. The government in Panama have implemented actions of restoration and conservation around areas of watershed, including restoring forests in watersheds. Also, the implementation of sustainable water management and water infrastructure. The main cause of flooding as reported by Emilio Sempris the Minister of Environment in 2018 was that the storm drains have not been modernised in over 50 years since they were placed. Meaning that water has difficulty running away and causes flooding. Another key element is the lack of education of the population, with people throwing garbage into rivers and not understanding the consequences of their actions.

Water is an important resource and needs to be monitored not only by countries at risk of running out of or are low on water, but by all countries across the globe. It is not just third world countries which are at risk of running out of drinkable water which is crucial to human life. France in the summer of 2019 faced its worst droughts in 30 years. Rivers dried up, reservoirs were struggling to meet demands and rationing measures were implemented in the most severely hit areas. France experienced nine months of exceptionally dry weather with up to 60 percent less rainfall then normal. Climate change and the reduction in rainfall seemed to play a crucial role in the water shortage experienced in France. Farmers reported that their crops were at risk as irrigating fields were restricted in 50 of the country’s 95 departments. Another city which experienced a water crisis was Cape Town, South Africa in 2018. With rapid urbanisation, a dry climate and a high per capita water consumption, linked to three years of poor rainfall, the city announced drastic action was needed to avoid running out of water. A key priority for the administration in Cape Town was to reduce the demand a series of water-saving initiatives were introduced. Including instructions to limit shows to no longer than two minutes. Flushing the toilet when only necessary with a campaign slogan “if it’s yellow, let it mellow”. As well as the pushing of using recycled water. People were limited to a use of 50 litres per person per day which is low, considering the average daily per capital of use in California was 321 litres per person per day. The South African government took a risk and announced “day Zero” a moment when dam levels would be so low that they would turn off the taps in Cape Town and send people to communal water collection points. The announcement did prompt water stockpiling and panic as well as a drop in tourism bookings. However, it worked with the water use in Cape Town dropping from 600million litres per day to 507 million litres per day. Residents said that “The day zero campaign made us all think twice about water, we’ll never, ever, ever take water for granted again.” In most recent events we have seen the effects of climate change and reduced rainfall with the huge bush fires which hit Australia at the beginning of 2020. Due to drought the land was dry, and fires were able to spread easily causing mass devastation across the country. Successive droughts and the extra water that was needed to fight intense bushfires have caused an unprecedented shortage, with these regions now facing the prospect of the taps running out of water. As global temperatures continue to rise, cities and countries around the world will have to figure out how to do more with less water.

Proactive actions need to be taken by governments, businesses and even people across the globe to help prevent the running out of water. Water is a vital resource which needs to be taken seriously, to prevent water shortages. These preventions include sustainable water management, with the improvement of infrastructure as a priority. Using reclaimed water, rainwater harvesting, and recycled wastewater allow for a reduction in scarcity and ease the pressures on groundwater sources. Pollution control & better sewage treatment, without proper sanitation, the water becomes full of diseases and unsafe to drink. A key element in prevention is awareness of the potential scarcity of water and educating people on the possibility of water crises and how to prevent them. It is necessary to radically change the forms of consumption from individual use to supply chains of large companies.