Pulling The Plug On The Panama Canal
issue 184 - June 1988
Pulling the plug on the Panama Canal
As flames gobble up Panama's forests, the world's most important waterway threatens to dry up.
Brian Leith gives a bird's eye view of the ecological idiocy that could bankrupt a nation.
I felt like an extra from 'Apocalypse Now': hanging over the edge of an open-sided Huey' UH1H chopper as it swung low over the Panama Canal. Below, a huge tanker sat in Miraflores lock. Away in the distance the glittering snake of water led to the vast Gatun Lake.
The USAF at Howard Air Force Base had kindly offered the BBC an hour's guided tour so that we could film aerial shots of the famous waterway and the rainforest on the surrounding hills.
But visibility was bad. 'Always lots of smoke this time of year,' said the pilot into my headphones in a Southern drawl, '. the campesinos are burning the forests before the rains start in May'.
They sure were. As we dipped away from the Canal to the east I could see a dozen columns of white smoke rising lazily from the hillsides ahead. On this side of the fires the land was brown and treeless with tiny white dots of Zebu cattle scattered here and there. On the far side of the fires through the smoke I could see the lush green of rainforest on the higher slopes. The camera operator shook his head at me: no good shots here. We headed back to Howard Base.
The full significance of that scene did not sink in until two years later in 1986, when I heard a rumour that the Canal was in trouble. I returned to Panama and discovered what every environmental journalist dreams of: a clear demonstration that long-term economic stability depends upon ecological sanity.
The Canal is the heart of Panama. Geographically, politically, and economically this 50-mile link between Atlantic and Pacific is at the centre of the tiny isthmus. The nation itself was even created in 1903 by the ruthless Theodore Roosevelt, who twisted Colombia's diplomatic arm to set up a buffer zone around the proposed waterway. The Americans still effectively control the Canal: today there are some 10,000 US troops stationed within five miles of the Canal.
By cutting 14,000 miles from the sea journey between Europe and Asia, the Panama Canal became the most important waterway in the world as soon as it opened in 1914. All day and all night liners and yachts, warships and supertankers glide noiselessly past the skyscrapers of Panama City at the Pacific end of the canal. The city's great wealth, in stark contrast to most of Central America's poverty, is founded on its role as a centre for shipping and commerce.
The Canal's design is ingenious and central to this story. Far from being a sea-level ditch between the oceans, the waterway was created by damming the Chagres River at its Caribbean mouth. So was born the vast Gatun Lake that fills a huge natural basin in the centre of the isthmus. Locks were then constructed at either end so that ships could be lifted up to and down from the lake.
The locks are vast and the quantities of water required to lift and then lower a ship through them are mind-boggling. Every time a ship traverses the Canal 60 million gallons of Gatun Lake water are lost forever through the gates. Each day the Canal flushes out about three billion gallons of water: 20 times the daily needs of Panama City itself.
The system cleverly uses the natural features of the isthmus: a huge watershed basin, existing rivers to feed the lake and heavy rainfall. Under sensible management the Canal could work forever: the water losses are stupendous but then so is the storage capacity of Gatun Lake. And the lake is constantly refilled by the heavy rains that dominate Panama's climate for eight months of the year.
But that, of course, is the crunch. Panama's economy depends upon the Canal; the Canal depends upon water, and that water depends upon . forests.
The forests on the hills of the Canal watershed maintain the waterway in three key ways. First, they act as a sponge soaking up the vast quantities of rain that fall in the wet season and then releasing that water slowly during the dry months of January through April. Second, they actually create the local climate: about three-quarters of all the rain falling on these forests will be recycled back into the atmosphere. Third, the forests hold on to the fragile red topsoil that will quickly get washed downstream if there are no roots to anchor it. Without the rainforests the Canal would soon clog up with silt and the reservoirs run dry due to lack of fresh water.
And this is exactly what seems to be happening. A study by the Panama Canal Commission has shown that siltation is increasing rapidly and reducing the carrying capacity of the reservoirs. A separate study by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has found that rainfall within the watershed is now steadily falling by about five millimeters every year. The only reasonable explanation for these trends, say the scientists, is deforestation.
In the last 25 years forest cover in the watershed has roughly halved. Today about one third of this land - once all forested - is still covered with trees. The Government claims that deforestation is now prohibited. But when I drove through those forests that remain in the Upper Chagres valleys I discovered that the destruction continues.
The low-lying hills near the Canal itself are dominated by cattle ranching. As in so many parts of Latin America, ranching is more than just a means of earning a living: cattle here are a way of life.
On the higher slopes where the soil is more fragile and ranching more precarious, poorer campesinos slash and burn a few acres of forest. They plant maize and beans for a season or two to feed their family and then they sell the land to the more successful ranchers down the road. Each year the cattle empires of the larger ganaderos creep outwards a bit further. The poor farmers gnaw away at the trees and the cattle ranchers snap at their heels. So the trees-into-beef machine rolls relentlessly on and on.
The main problem today is that the chainsaws and fires are creeping into the forests from the far side of the watershed hills. Here, miles from towns or roads, it is virtually impossible to monitor forest destruction. The pressure of a growing population in the west of Panama doesn't help: these forests represent food and cash now to a homeless farmer. The Government is naturally loth to turn them away from the forests. If the campesinos are denied a quiet living in the jungle they will probably join the armies of dissatisfied slum dwellers in Panama City. Besides, General Noriega and his sleazy government have had enough to worry about in recent months: they aren't likely to have been losing much sleep over the destruction of trees.
The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) are financing cattle ranching throughout Panama - even within the watershed of the Canal. Bank officials in Washington and Panama City claim that they are restricting their loans to the development of existing ranches (rather than promoting new ones) and say they prohibit deforestation on sensitive soils or steep hillsides.
But in practice there is little or no supervision of how loan money is spent. I visited several farmers who were financed by World Bank or IADB loans: one of them even destroyed his last few acres of forest as I watched. I shall always remember a three-toed sloth hanging from a tall branch escaping as fast as it could while its home was chain-sawed from beneath it. The unfortunate creature was not fast enough.
The danger facing the Panama Canal is not imminent. The reservoirs are not drying up noticeably, nor is silt clogging up the lock mechanisms as yet. Nevertheless informed observers agree that the Canal's long-term future is clearly dependent upon the remaining forest in the watershed. And there have been one or two worrying portents: a few years ago during a particularly long dry season (itself a possible danger signal) the water in Gatun Lake fell so low that the largest ships were unable to use the waterway. The question this poses is: by the time Panama gets the Canal from the Americans in 1999, will it be useless?
Brian Leith is a television producer with the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol, UK.