Panama's ecology endangered
By Tom Carter
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
MIRAFLORES LOCKS, Panama
The pelicans hovering near the Pacific Ocean entry to the
Panama Canal know that ships mean dinner time.
As the Panamax vessel Mayfair rose through the locks late last
year, some 26 million gallons of fresh water rushed through the
gates into the ocean behind it. The flood of fresh water mixed
with the brackish ocean, upsetting the salinity and confusing the
fish so that they became easy pickings for the ungainly birds.
The Mayfair, which paid a $113,491 toll to move its cargo
of shipping containers 50 miles across the Panamanian isthmus,
then passed through the 164-square-mile man-made Lake
Gatun, where dredging goes on 24 hours a day. During its
descent from the lake, another 26 million gallons of fresh water
poured into the Atlantic.
It is a good thing the canal slices through a rain forest,
because every ship that makes the crossing uses 52 million
gallons of fresh water.
Multiply that by 30 to 40 crossings a day -- roughly 13,000
a year -- and it is obvious that this toll way requires lots and
lots of water.
It is estimated that the lake needs a daily inflow of 1.6
billion gallons to service the canal and provide drinking water
for Panama. As the United States prepares to hand over the
canal to the Panamanians at noon on Dec. 31, that water
supply is at risk. One only has to do the math.
The populations of Panama City and Colon, which are
located at either end of the canal and get their water
supply from Lake Gatun, are growing dramatically.
About half of Panama's 2.7 million population lives
within 30 minutes of the watershed.
Panama is losing an estimated 59,000 acres of rain
forest every year -- about 1,000 acres of that in the
canal watershed -- to logging, mining and
slash-and-burn farming. It is estimated that Panama has
lost two-thirds of its rain forest since the 1950s.
Panama receives an average of between 70 and 140
inches of rain a year, depending on the region. This fills
the canal with water, but also with silt, requiring $150
million worth of dredging each year. And despite
constant dredging, an estimated 1 percent of the canal's
water volume is being lost each year to sedimentation.
Panama's clay soils are highly susceptible to sliding and
erosion, especially during Panama's nine-month rainy
season, which brings torrential downpours. And much of
the watershed is steep mountainside. Research shows
that the average annual soil loss is about 2.4 tons per
acre. On cleared land, the soil loss can be as high as 11
tons per acre each year.
The possibility of global warming is becoming a concern.
This year, due to El Nino-related drought, the lake level
dropped 6 feet. The canal had to restrict the draft of
ships using the canal and scientists are asking whether
deforestation has diminished the amount of rainfall.
The protection of the environment that supports the canal is
of such concern that it received the largest portion of the $2.9
million in U.S. aid to Panama last year. Another $4.8 million
has been requested for 1999.
With one-fifth of Panama's economy tied to the operation of
the canal, protection of the watershed is not just a tree hugger's
concern, but necessary for the health of the nation.
"Not including Colon and Panama City, the number of
people living within the watershed is about 143,000 today. We
expect that number to double in 10 years," said Angel Urena,
of the National Association for the Conservation of Nature
Several of the scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical
Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island in the middle of
Lake Gatun also expressed concern.
"The pattern in Latin America is well established," said
Anthony Coates, deputy director of the STRI. "A road goes in,
the loggers and farmers move in, they slash and burn and then
move on to repeat the process."
It was a lesson that Panama learned at the Bayano
hydroelectric dam, which created a small lake when it was built
in the 1970s in eastern Panama, far from the Canal Zone.
"People moved in, and within five years the lake was filled
with silt," said Lissy Coley, a botanist from the University of
Utah. "Here the forest is right up against the city. It is under
The government has been much more zealous in protecting
the forests around a more recent project, the La Fortuna dam
Mr. Urena said the La Fortuna project shows that the
government has begun to enforce its own environmental laws
and the Panamanian people are becoming more aware of the
need to protect the rain forest.
"The pressure on the watershed ... seems to be going
down," he said. "I think we have learned the lesson that if we
cut the trees, we lose in the long run."
Environmentalists, once worried mainly about
slash-and-burn squatters, now are more concerned about
quarrying for construction materials and the growth of the
Panama City and Colon suburbs.
"There are encouraging signs that Panama is trying to do the
right thing. They seem to be taking a broad and reasonable
view of what to do with the areas surrounding the canal," said
"But anyone living in the developed world has to be
concerned that conservation is just a rearguard action. Panama
is just a microcosm."