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Water Woes: Deforestation Could Dry Up the Panama Canal

Increased population and management problems threaten the lakes that supply water for canal operations and drinking water for the capital

The lines of worry across Venancio Aquilar's face are deep as he unloads his fishing net, a small motor, and 12 pounds of fish from his small canoe.

For Mr. Aquilar, it has been a disappointing morning's fishing on the murky green waters of Lake Madden. "In reality, I'm fighting," he says, as he carries his equipment to a small house built of wood and unplastered concrete blocks. The 12 pounds of fish will net him $6, barely enough to feed his family for one day after he pays for the gas spent out on the lake.

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The economic plight of Aquilar and thousands of others living in the Panama Canal watershed area - 805,776 acres of land surrounding the waterway - has become a big problem for the government's Panama Canal Commission (PCC). Scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama City are warning that population pressure, corruption, and unchecked urbanization could seriously affect the watershed environment and with it, future canal operations.

"Panama is a gift of the Chagres," notes Stanley Heckadon, a senior scientist at STRI, equating the river's importance with that of the Nile to Egypt. Without the Chagres River, United States construction of the Panama Canal from 1903 to 1914 would have been tough at best, he says.

The source of the Chagres is high in what is termed the "Upper Watershed" - a series of emerald-green mountains blanketed by tropical cloud forest. This ecosystem ensures that billions of gallons of water run into Lake Madden and Lake Gatun, which provide the necessary draft for transiting ships through the vital link to world commerce.

The forest canopy prevents the canal's worst enemy - silt due to soil erosion - from blocking both the dams and lakes and in turn, the waterway itself.

This huge water reserve provides the millions of gallons needed to operate the canal's three lock systems and, perhaps more important, clean drinking water for Panama City. Some 80 percent of the capital's residents rely on the lakes for their water.

In recent years, however, migration has put the fragile watershed under pressure. Population in the area has soared since the opening of the trans-Isthmian highway in 1947. In 1960, just 37,000 people inhabited the area; now more than 150,000 live there, many below the poverty line. Many rural Panamanians see subsistence farming as their only means of survival, leading to increased deforestation.

While Panama has relatively more tropical forest cover than any other country in Central America, it's also clearing its forests faster than any other, at a rate of 148,200 acres each year. The situation is not much better on the canal watershed, although it has dramatically improved since the 1970s, when studies by STRI revealed alarming rates of deforestation.

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The creation of national parks has helped, but forest cover over the entire watershed has dropped from 80 percent in 1952 to 20 percent in 1985. A new STRI study is due to be published next year that will define the post-1999 environmental policy of the Panama Canal Authority (PCA) - as the commission will be called when the waterway reverts to Panamanian control.

Alberto Aleman Zubieta, the Panamanian who is the current administrator of the PCC, says that a special "entity" is being established to manage the watershed after the US turns over the waterway in 1999.

Mr. Aleman adds that $3 million is being set aside to combat environmental problems, which he calls the "first priority" of the post-1999 board. Satellite imaging will also be used to monitor the area, he says.

But even under the best political conditions, the upper and lower watersheds are an administrative nightmare, encompassing two provinces, eight districts, and 33 local councils. This is aside from falling under the jurisdiction of the Environment Ministry, the Interoceanic Regional Authority (ARI), and the PCC itself.

Under Panama's new Organic Law - an amendment to the Constitution that defines the legal position of the post-1999 PCA - the authority will have final say and veto over projects inside the watershed zone, or at least in theory.

"If politics [as they are now] are involved in the management of the canal, it will be disastrous," says Roberto Ibanas, a Panamanian research biologist at the STRI in Panama City who also coordinates the Panama Canal Watershed Natural Resources Monitoring Project.

Panama's Environment Ministry, known by its Spanish acronym - INRENARE - is regarded by many as a bad joke. Many appointments come as a reward for political support for the ruling Revolutionary Democratic Party, leading to widespread inefficiency. Dissenters are usually fired, according to the Panama City-based Environmental Defense group and Western diplomatic sources.

The lack of a professional civil service and the strength of the politicized one worries scientists like Ibanas and Heckadon - who himself was director of INRENARE in the early 1990s. A spread of Panama City's unplanned, chaotic urbanization into the watershed would spell disaster for the canal, electricity supplies, and clean drinking water, they say.

Heckadon and others at the STRI are urging Panama's government to "engage all forces" to stop future urbanization and limit economic development in the area to former US military installations. "They need to take away incentives for businesses to move into the watershed," Heckadon says.

But analysts say the chances of the present government taking up this policy are slim. In 1995, permission was granted for a Mexican construction company to build a new trans-Isthmian four-lane toll road through the lower watershed area, which was plowed straight through national park land.

Ibanas says that reform of the civil service and a crackdown on government and private-sector corruption must be initiated soon to even begin to tackle the problems posed by the watershed and the country at large. "We have to make better long-term plans about where we want to be in the next 50 years ... including a clear and functioning environmental policy," he says.

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