The Washington Times
January 13, 1999

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
                                 incredible pressure."
                                      The government has been much more zealous in protecting
                                 the forests around a more recent project, the La Fortuna dam
                                 in Chiriqui.
                                      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
                                 Mr. Coates.
                                      "But anyone living in the developed world has to be
                                 concerned that conservation is just a rearguard action. Panama
                                 is just a microcosm."