Drought in the Rainforest: Ships, Cities, and the Slow Disaster of Water Scarcity in Panama

Ashley Carse

Department of Human & Organizational Development, Vanderbilt University, USA

In August 2015, the Panamanian government declared a national state of emergency. More than two-thirds of the country was affected by a long El Nino-related drought and the annual rainy season, which usually begins in April, was months overdue. Concern was most acute in the region around the Panama Canal, where about half of the country’s four million residents live. The state responded by suspending new water concessions for landscaping and agriculture and initiating a media campaign to encourage residential water conservation: “Gota a gota, el agua se agota” (drop by drop, the water runs out). But there was a thirsty elephant in the room. Panama’s two largest cities depend on the same water reservoirs as the canal, but the political discourse and policy responses to drought elided the staggering volume of fresh water used by the canal’s lock system: fifty-two million gallons per ship or nearly two billion gallons per day. To put that figure in perspective, the canal’s daily water use would be equal to the potable water consumption of seventeen million Panamanians—if there were that many people in the country. The drought suggests that a slow disaster formatted by historical technological and planning choices, deepened by increasing ship traffic, and punctuated by changing climatic patterns may be looming in Panama. However, key parts of this equation are rhetorically elided by a domestic political and economic establishment committed to a vision of economic development wedded to the water-intensive transport service sector. In other words, engineering, shipping, and policy have given rise to an infrastructure of disaster that produces the regular conditions for water emergency beyond any isolated event. The paper also examines recent and current proposals to increase water supply in anticipation of an uncertain climatic future.

1. Ryuma Shineha
2. Chihyung Jeon