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Insights into Activism: Acclimating to Climate Change

By Racquel Fox

Water insecurity is an issue plaguing much of the globe, and with climate change leading to more intense drought conditions, no place is safe from the scarcity it causes. This is problematic for once consistently wet areas like the Panama Canal, where climate change has increased the frequency of El Niño events and led to drier regions. In the fourth edition of Insights into Activism, we aim to educate readers on the consequences that climate change poses on water availability for both potable and economic purposes through highlighting the work of Ilya Espino de Marotta.  

Holding the position of Deputy Administrator and Chief Operations Officer of the Panama Canal Authority, Marotta had a remarkable rise to the top of a male dominated field. As one member of the four-person team to draft the $5.25 billion Panama Canal expansion plan, Marotta has proven her capability as one of the foremost marine engineers in Central America. Despite venturing to the United States and graduating from Texas A&M with a degree in marine engineering, Marotta’s goal was to return to Panama and work by the water. When she returned and began work on the Panama Canal, she claims she did not face much gender-based discrimination until she took the position working on the canal expansion project. In order to send the message that she was going to do the job no matter what her contemporaries had to say about it, Marotta began donning a pink hardhat and safety vest on the job. While she has made headlines for her advocacy of women in the workplace, Marotta’s championing of feminism has been forced to take a backseat in the face of the novel issue facing Panama: water insecurity. 

The new Panama Canal expansion is officially opened

With an average annual rainfall of 2,930 mm, Panama is one of the wettest countries in the world, making the water crisis in the canal an issue the country has never seen before. Temperature increases have diminished the amount of water in the canal; a problematic phenomenon for the world economy and the 2 million people who depend on the water for drinking purposes. The canal links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans by a water bridge that works as an elevator to raise ships to an artificial lake before dropping them on the other side. Constructed in 1914, the Panama Canal has been heralded “an engineering marvel” and sees nearly 15,000 ships a year. A prominent part of  international trade, the canal accounts for nearly 4% of global shipping. Due to the canal requiring 52 million gallons of water to move a singular ship, any shortage of water is devastating to the country’s economic activity. With all of the trade gained through the canal’s construction, there is much to be lost with the disastrous effects of climate change.

 In addition to the economic detriment caused, the water that supplies the canal provides half of Panama’s population with potable water. Even though the amount of transported cargo has multiplied since it’s construction, canal use is not the sole reason for a decrease in water supply. The issue of climate change in conjunction with rapid population and economic growth has placed an even bigger strain on water availability for citizens. Since 1911, the population of Panama has increased from around 350,000 to over 4 million people. With that exponential increase in population, resource availability is already at risk without the added stress of drier conditions. Marotta wants to guarantee that providing potable water for the people of Panama is of upmost priorty. Thus, the challenge that faces Marotta and her team is balancing economic stability and public health when devising a plan to address the water scarcity issue. 

As mentioned before, the drought in  Panama is a consequence of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation event. El Niño is a recurring weather pattern that is associated with unusually warm Pacific waters, and generally occurs in two-seven year intervals. The event typically brings other highly bizarre weather events with it, evidenced by the 1.1 ºC temperature increase in the canal region so far. Every year seems to be getting drier and drier, but when rain spells do fall on the country, the storms are more severe and stranger than the country has experienced before. The weather phenomenon is highly unpredictable, but the region has had an increase in event frequency, as “it’s one of the effects of climate change… the distance closes between one event and the next”. Scarcity forces innovation and adaptation, and that is precisely what we are seeing Marotta accomplish. 

These unprecedented conditions in the canal region have forced Marotta and her team to adapt and find new ways of ensuring water sustainability. Specialists have the newfound responsibility of being aware of water availability and constantly monitoring lake levels and rainfall. In order to adjust to the changing weather patterns facing the canal, Marotta and her colleagues are seeking funding for a $2 billion project to locate new sources of water. These sources could include reusing wastewater, diversion from other sources, or even desalination. While desalination is controversial due to its contributions to increasing greenhouse gas emissions and the oversalination of marine habitats, Marotta will examine the costs and benefits of various new water sources in order to form the most efficient and comprehensive solution. In addition to finding new sources of water, the team is developing better storage options so that the canal can work effectively even in the face of drier conditions. What Marotta wants people to realize is that water can not be taken for granted anymore. Climate change is affecting the entire world, and if anything is to be learned from Panama’s struggles, water is no longer a resource to be used with reckless abandon. 

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