Forest Panama Canal and Panama City Water System

By Liliana Usvat

Panama Tourism

Panama is not only the geographical point where North America meets South America but also where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet in the country’s famed canal. The original meaning of the word “panama” means “abundance of fish,”. Panama enjoys a modern infrastructure, making travel through the tropical paradise easy and convenient.

While visitors to Panama may come for the Panama Canal, they stay for everything else. Known as the “Crossroads of the Americas,”


Located about 20 kilometers from Panama City, Isla Taboga is Panama’s favorite escape out of the city to bathe in its sandy beaches, ride Jet Ski’s, speed boats and fishing charters. First settled by the Spanish in 1515, Isla Taboga has a charming village with the second-oldest church in the western hemisphere, a few narrow streets with a few restaurants and great views to Panama City from the top of the Island.

Indigenous peoples populated the Pearl Islands until Spanish Conquistadors discovered the archipelagos’ wealth of pearls in the 1500s.

The Amador Causeway connects the three islands by the entrance to the Panama Canal to the mainland. From the causeway, there is a terrific view of Panama City, and the Bridge of the Americas. Many Panamanians like to spend their weekends jogging, riding a bicycle or rollerblading down the causeway, or having a meal or drinks in one of the many restaurants and bars on the islands.



Forests of Panama and Water  

MIRAFLORES, Panama -Each time a ship traverse the canal 52 millions gallons of fresh water from the Gatun lake is dumped into the ocean.


From the same lake the fresh water is used for drinking water, hydro power, industrial use by the Panama City.


More than 10 feet of rainwater per year falls in the jungles around the canal. Much of the water drains into the Charges River and Gatun Lake, about three times as much as it rains in Seattle or New York, and in theory more than enough to keep the locks operating at capacity.


One problem. Deforested slopes from Panama Canal cannot absorb water well . Floods of water run into the lake overflow the Gatum Dam and run out to sea. Eroded sediments from deforested slopes ends up on the bottom of the lake reducing its storage capacity


Gatún Lake, one of the largest artificial lakes in the world, created during construction of the canal.

But the rain does not fall steadily year-round. Most of it comes from May to December, in brief but intense downpours. An inch in an hour is ordinary, and six inches in a day is hardly unheard of. Rain falls so heavily in Panama that early canal builders described storms as turning the air to water.


Forest and Water

On forested slopes, much of this water soaks into the ground and feeds slowly into watershed streams and then into Gatún Lake.


But deforested slopes cannot absorb heavy rains.

Between the town of Gamboa and Barro Colorado Island, a dredge anchored offshore drills into the lake bottom, sucking up excess sediment and pumping it through long pipes to shore.

The resulting turbulence fills the lake with so much silt that people nearby who rely on it for drinking water have to filter it or use bottled water instead. But the dredging helps maintain the lake’s capacity to store water.

So the deforestation affects people living in the area.

The canal depends on the lake and its water, and they in turn depend on the health of the surrounding watershed forest. But in the last few decades, half of it has been lost to logging and slash-and-burn agriculture.

In the drought winter of 1990-91, lack of water forced canal operators to curtail lockages to fewer than 30 a day.

Although Panama City is a major financial center now, by some estimates the canal and its associated businesses still contribute 40 percent or more of the nation’s economy.

And if Panamanians  upgrade or expand the canal, an issue they are expected to confront in a referendum this fall, the reliability of Gatún Lake’s water supply will be even more crucial.

Water of Panama City

Panama City is basically served by two primary water treatment plants. The Miraflores plant is located near the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal and it generally services everything in the Western part of Panama City – the former Panama Canal zone, the old part of Panama City (Casco Viejo), Santa Ana, Calidonia, Bella Vista, etc.

This is the first or older water treatment plant, built by the Americans decades ago. Recently Panama built a new water treatment plant in Chilibre that draws raw water from Lake Alajuela. This plant serves the larger and more populous Eastern part of Panama City, to include Bethania, El Cangrejo, El Carmen, San Francisco, Pueblo Nuevo, Río Abajo, Juan Díaz and the district of San Miguelito.

On 8 December 2010 there was a massive rain storm that dumped “historic” levels of water on Panama in a very short period of time. The rains lasted for three days. The ground was already water saturated from an abnormally heavy rainy season. And the rains in early December caused hundreds of mudslides. Some of those mudslides went straight into Lake Alajuela, greatly increasing the levels of turbidity in the lake. The water treatment plant in Chilibre simply was not designed to be able to quickly and efficiently remove those levels of turbidity.

There is a connection between existence of  forest and mudslides, and about the capacity of the land to absorb the water and the trees that fix the land?

Forests of Panama


Columbus and his men were the first Europeans to see the towering forests of the Chagres River basin, with their 1,500 species of trees, some of them growing more than 100 feet tall, and the howler monkeys and toucans and other creatures that inhabit them. Another Spanish seafarer, Juan Corzo Serna, wrote about them in 1524, according to Stanley Heckadon Moreno, a sociologist and research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.


“He is our first witness to the land,” Dr. Heckadon said. “He describes it as a monumental forest.”

Despite the building of a railroad across the isthmus in the 19th century, the completion of the canal in 1914 and the military buildups of World Wars I and II, the watershed forest was more or less intact until about 1950.

But by then the United States had built a highway across the isthmus, from Panama City north to Colón.

“Pretty soon we ended up with 3,000 kilometers of trails built by loggers and followed by cattlemen and slash-and-burn farmers,” Dr. Heckadon said. In the Chagres basin and in the watershed on the other side of the canal, thousands of acres fell to their machetes and chain saws.

Is there a connection between the ownership of land and logging? If a foreign country or peoples that do not live in the area own the land the respect for the land and nature is less evident that if people that live in the area own it?

When the treaty turning the canal over to Panama was negotiated in the Carter administration, “there was a belief ‘now this area is ours, we can go in there,’ ” said Luis A. Alvarado Kinkey, a hydrologist who is environmental division manager for the canal authority, known as A.C.P., its initials in Spanish. “There was a lot of influx from the interior. They started cutting down forest to build pasture at an alarming rate.”

Deforestation peaked in the 1980’s, . By 2000, when Dr. Heckadon and his colleagues completed a study using satellite imagery and ground surveys, they found 53 percent of the watershed forest had been lost.

Money Bankers and Forest

Dr. Heckadon,  became the nation’s first environment minister, lead Panamanian bankers decided to stop financing cattle ranchers who cut down forest for pasture. “That withdrew the oxygen of the fire of slash and burn,” he said. And with the canal turnover in 1999, government agencies acted again to expand protected watershed areas.

About 70 percent of Panama’s forests have already been cut down, and squatters have moved into some areas bordering the canal zone, slashing and burning forested areas to clear land for crops.

Reforestation of Tropical Rain Forest

Little is known about reforesting tropical rain forests, for enhanced biodiversity and identified trees and other plants that could be grown and harvested sustainably, replacing slash-and-burn farming as a source of income.

But the effort, known by its Spanish acronym, Prorena, is complicated by the presence of an invasive and persistent form of a grassy plant called wild sugar cane or paja blanca (Saccharum spontaneum).

Dr. Stallard said biologists first spotted this grass in the canal area in 1978, and since then it has established itself in huge stands.

The plant, apparently an immigrant from Asia, has tenacious roots that hold the soil, an advantage in preventing soil runoff. But it grows aggressively and crowds out potentially useful native plants.

Based on satellite image classification and ground surveys, the 2790 km2 watershed had 1570 km2 of forest in 1997, 1080 km2 of which was in national parks and nature monuments.

Most of the 490 km2 of forest not currently in protected areas lies along the west bank of the Canal.

In forest plots designed to monitor forest diversity and change, a total of 963 woody plant species were identified and mapped.

Forests of the wetter upper reaches of the watershed are distinct in species composition from the Canal corridor, and have considerably higher diversity and many unknown species.

These remote areas are extensively forested, poorly explored, and harbor an estimated 1400-2200 woody species.

Large mammals are heavily hunted in most forests of Canal corridor, and there was clear evidence that mammal density is greatly reduced in hunted areas and that this affects seed predation and dispersal.

There is no sewage treatment in the watershed, and many towns have no trash collection, thus streams near large towns are heavily polluted.

Still, models suggest that large-scale deforestation would increase landslide frequency.

A study of runoff showed deforestation increased the amount of water from rainfall that passed directly into streams. As a result, dry season flow was reduced in a deforested catchment relative to a forested one.

Changes in policies regarding forest protection and pollution control are necessary.

Life of a forest is very fragile we need to protect it.

Blog 73- 365



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