During the following weeks and until the return of the rains that are historically estimated between mid-April and early May, Canal specialists must demonstrate the accuracy of their calculations of the water that was stored during the rainy season, so that it is enough to supply more than 50% of the population and for Canal operations.
In this task, the actions implemented to manage the resource, the awareness of the population to make proper use of it at this time, but above all, to know how much we were able to store during the rainy season, play a decisive role. Erick Cordoba, manager of the Water Division of the Panama Canal, describes the past rainy season as good, but not excellent. He justifies his position based on the fact that, throughout the year, the rains in the Watershed were constant; however, what we popularly know as summer, began a month in advance. New challenges lie ahead.
Even so, at the end of November last year, the maximum operating level of both reservoirs was reached, which, in Córdoba’s opinion, “will be sufficient to cover the demand for the liquid, both for the water treatment plants and for the Canal operations, during the coming months when rainfall is scarce“.
In this sense, he explained that since last December, water saving measures were implemented in the Canal operation, including the use of short chambers in the Panamax locks, the elimination of hydraulic assists for the transit of ships, which together with the use of water reuse basins in the Neopanamax Locks, are actions that help to optimize the use of the resource, without affecting the service provided to international trade.
At the moment, the specialist explained, we are under the effects of the La Niña phenomenon, whose duration is predicted to last until March, after which it will become neutral. These are conditions that will guarantee that the Canal can offer a permanent draft in the case of the Panamax Locks, while in the case of the Neopanamax Locks, there could be minimal variations in the months of March or April.
Rains: a boost to crops and environmental protection
A year of abundant rainfall is a year of good harvests, which is very good news for the inhabitants of the Watershed, a large percentage of whom are dedicated to farming as a means of subsistence and who represent the Canal’s main allies in promoting actions to protect water resources.
This alliance between the Canal and the producers offers mutual benefits, since on the one hand, a resource so important for the country is protected and, on the other hand, the environment is protected. The Canal is developing a series of programs in these areas as part of its socio-environmental management, aimed at promoting and facilitating the adoption of better agricultural production practices, the results of which are already evident.
Karina Vergara, manager in charge of Policies and Environmental Protection of the Panama Canal, cited as an example that, “according to figures from the Ministry of Agricultural Development (MIDA), during the last coffee harvest, producers managed to sell about 14,000 quintals of this product, which represented an income of over one million dollars”.
A program called Sustainable Family Agriculture is also being promoted, which includes alternatives for the production of cassava, plantains, chicken farming, among other products that are already showing very positive results.
The Environmental Economic Incentives Program (PIEA) achieved important advances with the addition of more than 2,000 new hectares in the process of reforestation, in which 483,544 new seedlings have been planted. The programs, explained Vergara, are built in close collaboration with the communities, so that the benefits remain in these areas, and the environmental advances open the window for the development of other activities such as ecotourism, which represents a source of income for families in terms of lodging, guides, transportation, food, among others.
“Protecting the water resources in the Watershed also implies strengthening the surveillance of all the productive, industrial and commercial activities developed in this sector,” said Vergara. He also explained that the operational areas have been innovated with digital transformation tools that will expedite the communication processes when environmental audit findings are presented, so that corrective actions are implemented in the shortest possible time.
In search of the water of the future
The Panama Canal is looking to the future. Aware of its responsibility to guarantee the availability of water for human consumption and canal operations, the Canal is moving forward with the Water Program, a comprehensive initiative that involves a series of projects aimed at modernizing and expanding the water resource management system, which will enable it to meet the demand for the next 50 years.
John Langman, vice-president of Water Projects, explained that the specialists carrying out the studies have three lines of action. The first line would be to obtain conclusions in 2023 and it would take about three years to develop the recommended projects. In this case, they are investigating alternatives that will allow the Canal to save water, i.e., to continue operating efficiently, but consuming less.
The second is to analyze options related to projects to be developed in areas under the jurisdiction of the Panama Canal. In this case, the possibility of segmenting the Gatun reservoir, dredging the navigation channel, considering changes in the extraction capacities of the Alhajuela reservoir, among others, is mentioned.
Langman explained that in the event that after analyzing the results obtained from the first two lines of action, the objectives are not achieved, then solutions outside the Canal’s area of jurisdiction would be examined, which are related to mechanisms to reduce or transfer some of the water withdrawals to other basins to reduce the pressure exerted on the Canal’s Watershed.
The administration of the water resource is a fundamental part of the Panama Canal, which is why, supported by the support received from the residents of the communities in the watershed, the talent of the Canal’s collaborators and a vision of the future, work is being done to guarantee that water continues to be available for the population’s consumption and the growth of the inter-oceanic waterway so that it generates sustainable contributions to the National Treasury.