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“God gave us the weather but he never mentioned the wind”

It’s the dog days of summer here in Panama – the heart of the dry season. Where we live, in Alto Boquete, the days are warm and cloudless but we’re treated to spectacular cloud displays almost every late afternoon/early evening. We haven’t gotten any significant rain since mid-December, but early in the evening yesterday a huge thunderhead skipped around the area and taunted us with a fair amount of thunder and lightning, plus a cool breath of earth- and rain-scented air. We got nada, but we’re taking it as a sign that the rainy season is just around the corner.

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Yesterday’s big teaser

It’s been calm lately but in recent weeks we’ve had some epic wind. It often sounds like our roof is blowing off, and I have never lived in any other place (including my home turf of West Texas) where it sometimes feels like the wind might completely pick me up off my feet, Dorothy-style.

Since this is our first Panama dry season, we were told to expect lots of wind and hotter temps. But the super-charged El Niño has changed the rules this year and the long-timers tell us things are different. The calm stretches we’ve had are almost unheard of, but when the wind has blown, it’s been even stronger than usual. When the wind is howling, the higher elevations in and above Boquete have been getting socked with gloomy conditions and sideways-blowing bahareque (the fine, almost-mist-like rain that creates so many beautiful rainbows this time of year). El Niño aside, the long-timers have also been saying that Panama’s rainfall averages have been declining for several years – one more example of how climate change is rewriting so-called normal conditions all over the planet.

As a certified weather junkie I’m a bit obsessed with all things climate-wise, and I’ve been thinking a lot about water lately. In a country like Panama, where weather and water are inextricably linked, it’s a very good idea to be mindful of every drop. Panama’s very economy hinges on rainfall since the Panama Canal can’t operate without sufficient water levels in Lake Gatun. That’s the freshwater lake that’s used to fill the canal locks and raise ships up and over the Isthmus. And in this drought-declared year, more than once the canal authority has had to restrict the draft (water displacement) of the ships going through because Gatun hasn’t had enough water. It’s a sobering situation.

In our neighborhood, a reserve water tank is a must since water outages are pretty common. In the typical pattern, the water will shut off in the afternoon and then come back on and start re-filling our 650-gallon tank sometime during the night. I’m knocking wood loudly right now because the pattern has been pretty reliable lately, but we have had a couple of longer stretches (including one that lasted six days!) with no fresh water coming into our reserve tank. After six years living on a boat, we know how to conserve. Laundry and plant-watering are put off and navy showers are the order of the day. We figure we can make those 650 gallons stretch for at least two weeks, but hopefully we won’t get the chance to find out.

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The red light means the water’s off – time for navy showers

Honestly, we don’t mind this system because it makes us very, very mindful of conservation. We both firmly believe that wars will soon be fought over water as climate change continues to alter the weather patterns that people have come to rely on for many, many decades. According to the U.N., 783 million people on this planet do not have access to clean drinking water. 783 million! It really puts our little water “challenges” into perspective.

Panama is actually still a very wet country even with the declining rainfall and the ongoing drought. Parts of the country get up to 15 feet of rainfall every year. The problem, as I understand it (and this is a gross simplification of a very, very, complex issue) is not a water shortage – it’s a lack of a unified and well-managed water collection and delivery system. Damming of rivers and building of reservoirs on indigenous lands is hugely controversial (as it should be). In the meantime, cattle are dying on the Azuero Peninsula and the Canal doesn’t always have enough water to float the biggest ships.

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One of many PVC water pipes snaking through the underbrush, seen on a recent hike

Here in the Boquete area, there are 20-plus rural water districts that are all individually and privately managed to varying degrees of success. Take a hike anywhere into the back country around here and you’ll see PVC pipes threading the trails, sagging across creeks and streams, and sometimes even crossing overhead – and it’s not unusual to see water geysering into the air from aging and leaky PVC. With such a system, it’s kind of a miracle that the water districts are able to provide fresh and reliable water as well as they do. Here in Brisas Boqueteñas, our water district copes by turning off the tap most afternoons. Thus the pesky red light in our laundry room.

However, there’s lots of reasons for hope. One of the biggest is a $25 million tender, issued by President Varela’s office in late 2014, for a new water and sanitation system for Boquete district. Supposedly the bid period ended in February and the project is to be completed over the next two years. This being Panama and all, we’re in “wait and see” mode – but the mayor of Boquete did say, in a town meeting last fall, that work was about to begin in certain areas.

So what’s coming next on the weather front? Mid-May marks the official beginning of the rainy season, and if that lovely scent coming from our teaser cloud is any indication, maybe the rains will start even sooner. The monster El Niño is now in decline, and some indicators are pointing to the opposite effect – La Niña conditions – by fall. Let’s hope it means good things for the cattle in the Azuero and the water levels in Gatun, since a La Niña typically means wetter weather in Panama.

Here are a few of my favorite weather links:

  • The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, based in Panama. The STRI is a fantastic resource for ecological data on the country, and last fall published an excellent summary of El Niño/La Niña’s impact on Panama.
  • Boquete Weather.com. Published by one of Boquete’s foremost weather watchers, Lloyd Cripe, this site is chock full of data on current and historical conditions. Lloyd also collects and aggregates rainfall and other data from weather stations operated by local citizens in and around Boquete district. I look forward every month or so to his Boquete Weather Watchers’ Update. Here’s the latest issue.
  • Meteo Earth. Did I mention that I’m a weather junkie? I could spend hours on this mesmerizing site that shows current and forecast wind speed and strength, precipitation, and temperature for any location on the planet. You can zoom all the way out into space and turn the world like a globe, or you can zoom right in to your current location. It’s weather “crack!”
  • The International Research Institute for Climate and Society. This scholarly organization publishes a wealth of technical data on global weather patterns and their impact on people everywhere. The IRI is world-renowned for its research on the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the fancy scientific name for our boy. Here’s pretty much everything you need to know about ENSO.

12 Comments

  1. Great article about the weather and water situation here in Panama. Pedasi has 11 wells in the district with plenty of water, but only 4 are working. Our alcalde has worked to get Idaan to start fixing them. So in the meantime, we too, must conserve, although we personally have been fortunate not to have been without water for more than a day so far this season. When turned off, it is usually in the morning for a couple of hours at most. Looking forward to wet season and maybe La Niña will come soon.

    • Ha, that’s fantastic! “Water flights.” Seriously, I think people take water much too much for granted, especially in the states. When it always comes clean and fresh out of the tap (well, unless you live in Flint) no one wants to think about droughts and global shortages.

  2. Very interesting and informative article. Never thought about rain’s impact on the Panama Canal. A lot to think about!

  3. Excellent post and very similar to our situation in Nicaragua. I never thought about the Panama Canal and the water displacement for the large ships going through the canal during the time of drought. This makes me wonder about the plans for our Big Stupid Nicaragua Canal route. Our lake, which is extremely low now, has to constantly be dredged for the ferries to pass to the mainland. I can’t
    imagine the devastating effects this proposed canal will have on our island and the entire country of Nicaragua.
    On another note, we have a large gravity fed water tank for our house, too. The only way we can tell if we are on tank water is to climb the tower and look in the tank. It usually refills at night, but your photo of the red light fascinates me. How does that work? We need to install a light that tells us if we are on tank water.

  4. Thanks, Deb. I thought the Big Stupid Canal was in mothballs now (?). It’s a horrible idea but do you really think it will ever get built? Let’s hope not.

    Regarding our tank set-up – there is a float switch inside the tank, a foot or so from the top, that turns on the red light when the level reaches the switch. It’s near enough to the top that we know we still have a mostly full tank when the light comes on. It’s a pretty good system but we would like some sort of gauge installed so we’ll know exactly how much is in the tank at any given time.

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