Fighting the waste in Panama

As the tropical rain pours down outside, I am sitting here hoping that the tide is out. Otherwise, tomorrow morning we are going to wake up to news and images of the flooding throughout the lower parts of Panama City.

Unfortunately, Panama City has not done a great job of “city planning”, especially in respect to natural runoffs and areas of watershed. As the population and housing needs expand, the city has expanded. Encroaching on tidelands and mangrove forests. Though there has been a move now to curb the expansion into the mangroves, there has still been a lot of land-fill of the tidelands that were once the watersheds of the river basin. So, areas which were built 40-50 years ago, which have never flooded before, now flood regularly when the high tide and tropical rain meet.

Many people accuse the government of failing to deal with the issue of waste and rubbish blocking the sewage and storm water drains. But the issue is much bigger than this; there are

  • The typical issues of rubbish bags being opened by stray dogs, cats or vultures.
  • Failure to collect rubbish regularly (most weeks our rubbish is collected on a Sunday, or not). Sometimes we simply have to call and beg them to send a special truck to pick up because it’s been so long.
  • Homes here don’t have gardens and composting: and most people don’t even know what compost is anyway.
  • This is the tropics – you can’t just leave rubbish out for more than a day without it starting to turn rancid.
  • Re-cycling is virtually non-existent here and there is only a small culture of reuse and recycle.

I’m aware of this every Saturday when I go to the market with my own bags and I still have to refuse the offer of a plastic bag at each stall. I’m aware of this when I go to the supermarket and I see that most people are not carrying their own bags. And I’m aware of it when I see the rubbish on the sides of the streets.

This issue has not been addressed by recycling stations at the primary schools or outside supermarkets or gas stations.  Even trying to recycle paper and cardboard in Panama seems to be hard work! They don’t come and pick it up – you have to drive it over and drop it off. How many companies or homes are going to take the time to do that?

But I am even aware of it in my kitchen. Every maid so far has had to be trained not to simply throw away the peel and veggies that are “up to scratch”. They don’t realize that those ugly veggies that are not pretty enough for the salad can be used to make a fabulous vegetable broth!

And then they complain to me that I don’t have any bullion cubes for veggie broth! Really?  Admittedly, my cooked veggies from the broth that I then throw away (and keep only the broth) probably decompose much faster in the rubbish than the raw ones would have – they probably smell more as well.

But more than anything, I am appalled by the packaging at the supermarkets (not that I buy my veggies at the supermarket anymore) – the way that they individually wrap all in Styrofoam and glad-wrap! As if there wasn’t enough rubbish already.

But this is definitely a modern day problem, the same way that the floating island of rubbish is a problem in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the plastic now found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench!

There are ingenious solutions found in a number of parts of the world, such as this solution to “flip-flops”:

It’s really easy to complain about the problem, it’s much harder to do something about it. Even on a personal level. I can make small choices:

  • a recycling bin in the yard (because I’m lucky enough to have a  yard)
  • the choice to take my own bags to the vegetable market and supermarkets and only buy fruit and veggies that are not pre-packaged
  • the conscious decision to hold onto the paper to take it to the recycling plant ourselves
  • metal / glass water bottles – which we refill regularly rather than buying bottled water

But the plastic bags, bottles and packaging issues need to be addressed on a massive scale if we are going to make any headway.  My little contribution is only a tiny grain of sand in the Sahara desert and that’s not enough.

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Crystal clear streams & rivers

So, in the midst of all the discussion worldwide regarding climate change and whether the extreme weather conditions in the US (fires in Washington, Oregon, Montana & California and flooding in Texas & Florida from two mammoth hurricanes) are somehow man-made; with more than 41 million displaced in Asia from monsoons and rains with flooding in too many places to count, Panama seems idyllic!

So, it was with considerable amazement that I watched a rather well-known figure in Panama get trolled for polluting the environment. Contributing to the problem? Definitely. She should definitely have known better! (First rule – don’t get caught. Assume that someone is following you and filming you in everything you do).

Well-dressed, in high-heels, she took bags of rubbish out of her car and proceeded to push them through the railings into the stream and watershed below. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one way that you get rubbish in the waterways!

Shame! Shame! Shame!

panutopia-rubbish-fine75

panutopia-rubbish-trolled-twitter

This poor lady was all over Twitter, Facebook & WhatsApp in Panama, with a zoom in on her number plate, and shortly thereafter, the Traffic authorities tracked her down, and gave her a fine.

A paltry, measly and worthless US$75.00 fine!

That’s what you get for throwing rubbish out of your car window. Or, in this case, for taking bags of rubbish out of your car and pushing them through the railings and into the stream below.

The internet was having none of it! They tracked her down and then they blew her up. They trolled her, they tracked her and they made sure that she knew “everyone” had seen her.

And then they started asking: “what was in the bags that she couldn’t just throw them into a rubbish bin somewhere?”

So much so, that some reporters actually climbed down into the gross and dirty waterways to rescue those rubbish sacks and open them to have a look!

I have no idea what people were expecting them to find, but the reporters seemed to be quite disappointed when they opened the bags and simply found rubbish.

So, while the rest of the world is either on fire or flooded, Panama is on fire because some unrefined lady (and I use that term very broadly) threw a couple of rubbish sacks into a river that may (or may not) be part of the bigger problem of flooding in Panama.

So, some of water is not quite so crystal clear. More like, shirty (yes, I made up a word) water.

Let’s put this in perspective, shall we? Just for a moment?

We’ve got:

 

Because we have fires from California to Washington, from Montana through Idaho and Colorado: and no hope of rain for that part of the country.

And then you have #HurricaneHarvey and #HurricaneIrma tearing through the Texan gulf and the Caribbean: Harvey was a Category 4 by August 25th. The flooding in Houston is still not cleared, even after 3 weeks. And so you end up with tweets like this:

Across the world, 41 million are displaced from flooding in Pakistan, India & Bangladesh. Mumbai flooding:

Honestly, why would we even think Panama has a problem? In the August flooding, there were only 283 homes affected, possibly some 2,000 people. This was the worst of the flooding:

Some houses just had to clear out the water but there was no major damage. But I know these parts of town – they are old parts (well, by old I mean built more than 30 years ago). Before this, they have never been susceptible to flooding. So what changed?

In other flooding in September 2017, there were a grand total of 7 houses affected. Yes, you read that right: 7 houses.

Siete casas afectadas por inundaciones en San Sebastián. Vía @Sinaproc_Panamapic.twitter.com/58f9ZB4Kpx

 

— TVN Noticias (@tvnnoticias) September 9, 2017

But then there’s the news and allegations that the garbage that caused this flooding:

A little bit of hard work and maintenance clearing those waterways, and we’ll be all fine and dandy, right?

Unfortunately, it rained after all of this work was done, and today everything got flooded all over again!

What could be worse than a culture that does appreciate clean & tidy? How about a culture of corruption where building permits and landfills are approved for wetlands and swamp areas, clearing of mangroves to build communities, thus blocking off all the exits for that water when the rains hit?

I’m told that just downstream from all these affected areas there are new landfills for housing developments. But that’s all – rumor has it! Of course, I don’t see anyone trolling the developers and construction companies? It’s much easier to blame the poor than to think that maybe it’s our development that is partially responsible for the destruction to the environment.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for development. There is a lot of need for good housing in Panama. But there is also town-planning or city-planners and responsibility to do it properly without cutting corners. I have a feeling some corners may have been cut here!

PanUtopia:

Utopia would be living in a country that provided an education to the engineers, architects and city planners that included respect for the environment. Where rather than regulating them out of business and making compliance impossible, there were incentives for full compliance; where approval processes were simple, yet effective in ensuring that proper planning and projections were completed. It’s not enough to consider whether “your development” will get flooded: “love thy neighbor” should mean that you don’t cause harm to another either.

Utopia would be a country where this actually got investigated and studied: where University students were actually out in the field looking at these difficult cases and working out what should have been done differently, so that when they are professionals and working, they have seen the actual effects of cutting corners.

But that would be Utopia.