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Panama Water Shortages

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Written by Matt   
Monday, 21 September 2009 07:35
Panama DroughtI'm driving in rural Panama when I stopped in front of a cute little house and asked the woman sitting on the porch if I could use her bathroom. I'd seen it done by a friend of mine Jianella a few years back. "Just go right up to the door and ask, doctor " she said. "Panamanians always say yes." It wasn't the response I was concerned about as much as the condition of the bathroom itself. I've always had a fear of public bathrooms and in this case, private ones were no different. The woman of course said sure and the bathroom, it turned out, was quite decent but for one factor - it had no running water. I would discover this only after doing my business and, with the strength of God, managed to throw most of my debris out the back window where a deep hole sunk into overgrown weeds. Two very different scenes emerged in Panama not long ago. At Panama City's landmark hotel the Intercontinental Miramar, President Martinelli, before getting into his motorcade of shiny new Prados, along with several aids and economics experts reported that Panama was weathering the recession. After that morning's power lunch, they declared that growth would be down but Panama would still maintain a top spot in Latin America thanks to billion dollar Canal expansion, banking district and the dollarized economy.

Roughly 30 miles from the Prados and cosmopolitan Panama City is the rural village of Campana where I stopped to use the bathroom. My host mother that morning, a middle-aged woman named Gladys explained that water shortages were common in her parts. She said it was difficult because they lived mostly off the family farm. The more water shortages, the less crops they could grow and the less crops, the less food her and her family of five had to eat. It hadn't rained much in the past months and while I tried desperately to sympathize with Gladys, I've never been in a position to survive on water so vitally. I don't know why I did this, but before I left, I gave Gladys' son Elvis a can of Axe deodorant I had in my car and told him it would help him get beautiful girls.

Over the past 18 months, as the world economic crisis shook up much of the world, Panama wobbled but never came tumbling down. And now that the credit crunch appears to be easing in some ways, Panama is supposedly poised for renewed large-scale growth. However the optimism in Panama's cities can be contrasted in the country's less progressive places which underlines the fact that many people in Panama are still largely untouched by the nation's record growth.

While trade, banking, the real estate boom, and budding tourism sector occupy much of Panama spotlight, a large percentage of Panamanians still rely on agriculture for a living. Agriculture employs a ton of Panamanians (in proportion to its percentage of the country's GDP). In tandem, agricultural products make up the nation's main exports, which have declined steeply in 2009.

In a fairly unpublicized article that came out last April in La Prensa, reporter Alcibiades Cortes reported that nearly 70% of the nation's farms had water shortages. Not only are the rainy months crucial for Panama's livestock and crops, but access to water reserves has been dominated by tycoon developers. Water shortages aren't limited to rural areas either: several highly-promoted tourist destinations frequently go without water for days on end.

Santeña Maximino Cedeño, a farmer and member of the National Cattle Association said "the economic losses from drought in Panama is incalculable." And although MIDA (Institute for Farming Development) has developed a water plan, few if any results have been announced.

In 2001, Panama's summer drought killed 720 thousand cattle and caused another 15,000 serious malnutrition. No one thinks Panama is facing this type of emergency again, but the upcoming dry season has refocused attention on the problems facing Panamanian agriculture as the population increases, foreigner-targeted real estate developments are constructed, and water resources come under greater pressure. It has refocused attention on Panama's less glitzy industries and populations.
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Many of Panama's farmers are subsistence farmers (cultivating enough crops to survive) and over one million people (more than 30 percent of the population) live below the poverty line in Panama. Of those people, more than half a million (19%) live in extreme poverty. While poverty has decreased in Panama over the years, it is still one of the more unequal countries in the world. Says the World Bank: "Panama's poorest are very poor and the richest are very rich. Although inequality is higher in rural areas, it is more obvious in urban areas, such as the city of Colón, where the close physical juxtaposition of the modern, dynamic, wealthy sector with poor city slums accentuates the perceived gap between rich and poor."

To the neophyte, it would seem that in Panama, a lot of people got carried away in the big industries and forgot that less glamorous initiatives like water existed. It will fall to Ricardo Martinelli's new administration to determine how the showers of economic growth can better filter down to the country's poor. Martinelli won in a landslide victory promising more attention to the people, among his first moves, donating his entire salary to charity and opting to ride around in his own private jet. Martinelli's yet to enact any major plans addressing the water issue during his short time in office, so in the meantime, families like Gladys' are left looking to the sky for answers.

Note: Flickr photo courtesy of Lon&Queta

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hm
written by Sarah Burton , September 21, 2009
is the government really not doing anything about this? seems like growth in panama, as great as everyone says it is, is still relatively consolidated?
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Great article
written by Sam P. , September 21, 2009
these things need to be discussed - great article.
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written by Dee Sund , May 26, 2014
I moved to Panama nearly three years ago from the US. I had no idea that there were months when you were lucky to have water a few hours a day. I read many articles about Panama, including many by International Living. Why are people not told about the negatives so they can make a really informed decision. I've met several people who came when water isn't a problem, only to leave after a year. With the amount of rain every day, starting in January, the government should be able to drill wells in the areas affected. With the relatively small population of the country, this is an unnecessary problem.The littering of the country is another one that shouldn't exist.
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Last Updated on Thursday, 15 October 2009 06:43
 
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