The Water Crisis in Panama


It started raining on December 8, 2010.  For fifteen days the narrow Isthmus of Panama received 265 millimeters of rainfall.  This impressive amount of precipitation shattered the statistics of the last ninety years.  Entire towns and villages were submerged with ferocious bodies of water causing enormous damage to property and lives.  The small tourist town of Portobelo is still mourning its nine persons who were killed during a large mudslide.

Rivers swelled like gigantic Anacondas devouring everything in its path.  The capacity of Madden Dam was exceeded and the opening of the gates caused a current so strong, that the Panama Canal was temporarily interrupted for several hours.  The same situation occurred at the Bayano Dam.  In an effort to prevent damages to the turbines, the gates had to be partially opened which worsened the floods downstream.  In the Province of Darien and Kuna Yala hundreds of people were homeless and transferred to schools urgently adapted to accommodate the victims of this natural disaster. It was a monumental deluge I had never seen in this country before.

The water treatment plant at Chilibre was severely damaged.  The Alajuela Lake which provides water to the Chilibre plant was so contaminated with mud, it clogged critical equipment necessary to purify the water for the Metropolitan Area of Panama City and Colon.  More than a million people were affected by the crisis.  Water was rationed by sectors.  After a few days, the Miraflores water treatment plant went back to normal operations as well as another plant in Chorrera.  This alleviated the problem, but did not solve it.  It was only a band-aid on a serious wound.

Drinking water was distributed by trucks.  You could see desperate people lining up with containers of all sizes and colors waiting for the water trucks.  Sometimes the trucks did not arrive and anger crept into the thirsty population.  The IDAAN (Water National Institute of Panama) authorities in a desperate move, loaned filtering equipment from the Panama Canal Authority  and from the Government of Costa Rica.  They had to put the Chilibre plant in service before there was a general revolt in Panama City.  The presidential plane was urgently sent to the United States to bring equipment that had been damaged due to the excessive amount of mud in the water reservoirs.  Time was running out.

Another corrective measure the Panama authorities adopted, was to buy millions of bottles of water from local companies and from Costa Rica.  This bottled water was then distributed by the Juntas Comunales (Community organizations) in small cars or trucks.  The Chilibre plant started to process water to flush the toilets and stop an epidemic of hundreds of people with diarrhea.  It was raw water; it could not be used to cook or drink.

At this moment we are receiving raw water about 80 percent of the day.  Our situation is not critical, because we are able to keep our toilets clean.  For two consecutive days we have received several liters of drinking water.  It is not enough for our needs, so we decided to purchase a water filtering system.  I will discuss that tomorrow.

Fortunately the city is receiving drinking water from Miraflores and Chorrera.  Friends, relatives, and co-workers cooperate in distributing water to the rest of the city.  For several days we obtained drinking water from the Don Bosco church and from a Delta gasoline station.  That was before we got bottled water and bought the water filtering system.

As a reminder of the water crisis of 2010-2011, I took a photograph of a woman who went to our house to distribute three liters of drinking water.  We are so grateful for this humanitarian action taken by the local authorities.  Water is such a vital liquid for life.

Photograph of a member of the Junta Comunal of Victoriano Lorenzo who was distributing bottles of drinking water to our neighborhood. We received three liters of water. Photo ©Omar Upegui R.

The rains have stopped.  It’s expected that the Chilibre plant will be fully operational next week, but as Yogi Berra used to say, “The game ain’t over till it’s over.” Good Day.

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