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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Water: choose your words wisely

Growing up in Panama, in a little place called Tolé, I remember frequent water shortages. Now, it wasn’t that we didn’t have water around (there was a spring that never dried up even in summer and we had a pump), but we frequently had no running water. The town pump broke down, they turned it off, they were conserving electricity and so it wasn’t running. That was usually all summer long. I seem to recall spending more time waiting for the water to come on than having water!

garden-water-pumpIn a pretty typical summer, I spent a lot of time at the garden water pump, using a wheel barrow to carry 5 gallon tanks of water back to the house for chores, or showers, or washing the clothes. And if the town water supply went off for long enough, then we would go down to the spring with buckets to get drinking water. We didn’t drink the water from the well, because it wasn’t filtered.  But it was good enough for everything else.

I remember being conscientious in my use of water for showering, using the water from the washing machine to water the plants, and washing dishes in a bowl on the back porch. Even that water was thrown on the plants.  Carrying the water that we used made us judicious about how it was used.

Roll forward to 2018, March 22 – World Water Day – and we have a director of IDAAN standing before the national legislature alerting to the need to conserve water. Unfortunately, he chose his words badly. He failed to truly address the most basic of issues regarding water in Panama.  He would have fared much better if he had started his tirade addressing the need for education at all levels regarding water usage.

He didn’t.

He went straight to saying that the problem in Panama was the “marginal communities” who use plastic pools, purchased in Do It Center for $79.99, who empty their pools daily and misuse “all the water”. And he got roasted on social media for it!

  • He got roasted for saying they were marginal.
  • He got roasted for specifying plastic pools.
  • He got roasted for saying they were from Do It Center.
marginal02 marginal04 marginal01
If you don’t have a cement or tiled pool, “you’re marginal” Don’t be marginal, use balls! So if I buy my plastic pool in Novey’s and not in Do It Center… am I less “marginal”?

Memes abounded! And we all had a good laugh.

marginales03
“You are invited this Saturday, March 31, to the Marginal Pool Party. Invitation by IDAAN”

But, unfortunately, he failed to get any of his true message across or voice any concerns for a real issue that does need to be addressed: water conservation.  World Water Day, he has an invitation to address the national legislature to voice his concerns, and he blows it!

No one heard the message.

And there were people that got it – that understood that it was World Water Day and there was supposed to be a message about water conservation – and they tried to make their message heard.

They were drowned out by the “marginal memes”.

Every few years Panama has a water shortage at the end of our “dry season”. That usually means that it’s late March and rains are not expected until mid-May, and so we have restrictions for four to six weeks. April 2015 was the last one, and even that was not very serious.  Three times in the 20 years I’ve been living in Panama City.

It’s not a common problem.

And even then, they restricted air-conditioning use and asked everyone to be careful with their electricity consumption before they applied any measures to water usage.

We have two seasons: wet and dry. Or, as some like to call them “green season” and “summer”. Our average annual rainfall is between 76-91 inches (Panama City side) and about 130-170 inches on the Portobello side.  We live in a tropical climate, and have the only capital city in the world to have a tropical rain forest in the city (Metropolitan Park).

marginales06This year it was still raining in January. Our usual summer (starting mid-December) had not yet begun. We started the year with 15 days of solid rain.  So much so, that Gatun Lake, which feeds the Panama Canal was overflowing! I was staying at a friend’s on the lake, and the water was up over the sidewalk. Their floating dock was higher than the sidewalk!  They’ve never seen that before.

La precipitación de lluvias acumulada del 1 al 17 de enero de 2018 es de 245 milímetros. Es 427% por encima del promedio histórico en la Cuenca del Canal.
Los reservorios multipropósitos nos permitirían acumular esta agua para la temporada seca.

— Jorge Luis Quijano (@jorgelquijano) January 19, 2018

According to the Director the Panama Canal (Jorge Quijano), the rainfall from January 1st to 17th this year was 245 mm.  That was 427% higher than the average for the entire history of the Canal.

This water is stored in the extra flooded areas that allow it to be stored for dry seasons to come.

But that was only this year.

A few years back there was concern that we might go a whole year without a proper rainy season, getting only occasional showers, rather than rain from May through November.

At the beginning of March, National Geographic published an article regarding Cape Town running out of water, and having a quick look at what other capital cities or major cities might be next.

Why Cape Town is running out of water, and who’s next?

Cape Town is considering a future of water shortages – “a water scarce future“.

A 40% water deficit is expected worldwide by 2030.  5 bn are expected to be affected by 2050.  But we don’t have to go very far: a little bit north and we get to Mexico with water shortage problems. A little further to the south and we have Lima, Peru with severe water shortage problems.  Unlike Panama City, which is in a rich tropical basin, Lima sits on a desert, which is the 2nd driest capital in the world.

Here in Panama, we take the issue of water with a pinch of salt. Living happily in a “dream world”, far removed from the possibility or any planning for what could happen if for just one year we got scattered showers, rather than proper tropical rain. Reforestation is simply an immigration program, rather than a way of life or requirement for development.  There is no real effort made even to reforest along the banks of the rivers and lakes that supply our city supplies.  Instead, we have rolling, grassy hills.  Water that simply evaporates because it is unprotected.

And then, when it rains too much, we complain that the water treatment plant got shut down because it got clogged up with mud (because there were no trees to hold the erosion back).

To add insult to injury, we have faulty maintenance that leaks water all over our streets.

rosita-waterbubblingup

So, yesterday, for example, the water got turned off for a couple of hours while the road was dug up and the water supply pipes were fixed.  Now, these pipes could be over 100 years old – I know the street was there before the church was built. And in 2014 the church celebrated 100 years of being founded and 2026 it celebrates 100 years of being completed as it is today.  But that wasn’t the only wastage yesterday.

There were numerous other reports around town of broken pipes gushing clean water into the streets.

 

Water just wasting away.

So while the director of IDAAN is complaining about all those “marginal communities” that are misusing the water in their plastic pools, the water is simply spilling into the streets in various parts of town from lack of maintenance and an adequate prevention plan.

Unfortunately, for 2018, the opportunity for a real discussion about the importance of water on World Water Day was lost. And I don’t see this director of IDAAN finding an audience willing to listen to him in the near future. That opportunity to make a significant difference was lost by a few misplaced words at the beginning of his presentation!