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Wednesday, April 24 2019 @ 08:25 PM UTC

ACP and IDAAN Expanding Water Production in Western Panama Province

Infrastructure Upgrades

Text, Photos, and Video by DON WINNER for - Recently Panama's ability to supply ample amounts of clean drinking water to residents has drawn criticism, and yesterday President Martin Torrijos went out to inspect the start of the construction of a new water treatment facility in Mendoza. Construction on the project has already started and is currently 10% advanced. The total cost for the project is $44.1 million dollars. The plant, which will have the capacity to produce 40 million gallons of water per day, is being constructed in the area of Mendoza in the district of La Chorrera. (more)

Esteban Sáenz of the ACP: Briefing reporters on the details of the project while awaiting the arrival of Martin Torrijos. This project falls under the purview of Esteban's office, so it's "his baby" to a certain extent. When I interviewed him about the project he told me "the first priority of Panama Canal watershed is to provide drinking water to the people of Panama, the second priority is to provide water for ships transiting the Panama Canal, and the third is to use the waters of the Chagres River (and Gatun Lake) to generate electrical power." The question was in the context of the current energy crisis, and as a percentage a very small amount of water is taken from Gatun Lake and used for drinking water, relative to the other two uses (ships and the generation of electricity.) This new plant will produce 40 million gallons of drinking water per day, which sounds like a lot until you consider it takes 26.7 million U.S. gallons to fill up just one chamber of a lock in the Panama Canal.

First, The Press Release: The Executive Vice President of the Department of Energy, Water, and the Environment of the ACP, Esteban Saenz and the Director of the IDAAN Juan A. Ducruet gave President Torrijos a brief presentation and a tour of the work being done. This is a joint project being completed by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) and the IDAAN. They signed an agreement in September 2006 stating that the ACP will build the raw water intake on Lake Gatun that will supply the treatment plant, and then that water will be pumped down to the existing IDAAN treatment plant in La Chorrera.

IDAAN is providing the funds to construct the 18 kilometers of pipeline necessary to get the water to the existing plant in El Trapichito. The contract was awarded last year on 5 October 2007 to the English company Biwater International Ltd, and the order to proceed was granted by the ACP on 24 October 2007. The contract specifies that the work on the plant has to be done in 480 calender days and has to be delivered no later than 14 February 2009.

The Clock is Running: Ing. Jorge Castillo, who is the project manager for Biwater International Ltd. and responsible for getting the project built on time, pointed out their "countdown" sign at the front of the site. "There are no bonuses for finishing the project early, but there are penalties for delivering late," he said.

Ing. Jorge Castillo: As the lead project manager for Biwater International Ltd., Jorge is the man responsible for getting the plant built and operational. He just came off of two other projects and has been working here in Panama for the past five years. They just delivered two other water purification projects (that he headed up), the construction of a new plant in Chilibre and the restoration or rehabilitation of the existing plant.

ANAM CAT II? What? According to the press release handed out by the ACP - "The Category II Environmental Impact Study was approved on 7 February 2007." Environmental impact studies are ranked from Category I which is a small impact like a single family home, to Category III which are large projects with potentially extensive environmental impacts. Category II Environmental Impact Studies are intermediate - and it just seems weird to me that a water treatment project that's going to suck 40 million gallons of water from Gatun Lake every day did not merit a Category III Environmental Impact Study. I mean, imagine trying to do a project with this kind of impact as a private investor. ANAM seems to enforce things when they want to, and to blow things off when they don't - inconsistency in the application of the law. And, they tend to come down harder on foreigners who are trying to develop the country. It doesn't make any sense. In any case, Cat II EIA. Got it. Check.

What's Up, Doc? Panama's Health Minister Rosario Turner was there as well. It seems like I run into her frequently, and this time just basically asked "what's new." She described how they continue to open new health clinics all over the country. "We are pushing out into the most rural and difficult to access parts of the country to better meet the health care needs of the poorest Panamanians - just last week we inaugurated three new health care centers," she said. Obviously, this water treatment plant will greatly improve the access to clean drinking water to a part of Panama that is growing quickly. And, clean water generally means healthier people.

More From The Press Release: " The civilian contractor started working to move earth on 1 March 2008 under the "fast track" system, through which Biwater presents plans to the ACP which approves them and then completes the work included in that set of plans. The construction of this modern water treatment plant will use and intake pipelines called "GRP" of 48" to 56" inches, which is a kind of plastic reinforced by fiberglass which is lighter and more durable than traditional materials." Great. Sounds good.

Man, Do I Want To Talk To You... Police Commissioner Juan Herrera is the commander of the Western Panamá province - which makes him responsible for everything from the Panama Canal (in the Panama province) as far as Santa Clara. So, many of these home invasion robberies that have been taking place are occurring on his turf. When I asked him about these, he had a good point: "When the victim reports the crime the DIJ takes the report and then investigates. If there is an arrest then the Public Ministry and the prosecutors take over the case to take it to trial." Very often the police (his guys) just show up, fill out reports, and leave. The responsibility for tracking down and prosecuting the bad guys falls to someone else. "That's the way they have things set up," he said. I could tell he would like to be able to take a more active roll in catching the bad guys, but Panama is still afraid of guys in uniform. You know, it's that whole Noriega thing. In any case, Commissioner Herrera's office is in Chorrera, and he said he would be more than happy to talk to anyone who has been victimized by the recent home invasion robberies. "We meet with the people who live in the area of Coronado regularly," he said. The message is clear - if you organize and approach them, they will do what they can to help make you safer.

IDAAN Director Juan Ducruet: Juan has been on the job for about five months now, and was specifically hired to get the IDAAN house in order. Recently, at least in the past few months, there have been several protests with residents closing streets because they don't have adequate supplies of water. "Even as we speak, you can bet that right now someone is illegally invading a parcel of land right now, building a house, and tapping into a water pipeline somewhere. These houses are not on meters, but they effect the entire system. We are working hard to control both physical losses of water (from broken pipes) as well as "commercial" losses of water." I waited until all of the other reporters had finished and then spoke with Mr. Ducruet for a long time. I had a lot of questions for him.

75% Loss Rate? A couple of weeks ago Panama City Mayor and Presidential candidate Juan Carlos Navarro said that 75% of the water produced by IDAAN is "lost" somewhere in the system - meaning that they only bill or get paid for 25% of the water they produce. Ducruet basically confirmed this, and explained that "we lose about 45% of our production in leaking pipes - this is physical loss. We lose another large percentage in "commercial loss" meaning that the water ends up in someone's home and is used for drinking water or bathing or what have you, but that house is not on a meter and the people who are using the water are not paying." He explained how they are "doubling, tripling" their budgets and personnel to stop both of those kinds of losses, physical and commercial.

We Will Always Have Water Trucks: Right now there are areas and neighborhoods that have to be supplied with trucks of drinking water. Every day new neighborhoods spout up that are "illegal" or unplanned. People just build a house, tap into the water pipes, and off we go. "Then, when the don't have adequate water supplies they want to protest, close streets, and blame us," said Ducruet. He explained how IDAAN is working hard, basically non-stop, to upgrade, modernize, improve, and expand the water supplies throughout the country but that it's a very big problem. And, that they are playing a constant game of catch-up with growth.

Expanding the Network: Ing. Práxedes Castro, the Chief of the Environmental Health Division of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) explains how the system will work. In this photo he is pointing to the location of the new plant being built in Mendoza. "We will pump raw water taken from Gatun Lake up here to the plant, where it will be treated and then piped down to the existing IDAAN water treatment plant in La Chorrera," he said. He explained how they are a "bulk producer" of water and that they supply that water to IDAAN, who then sells it to customers. He explained how IDAAN plans to tap off of that new water network to provide water to the communities in the surrounding area. This part of Panama is located basically between La Chorrera and Gatun Lake, and is experiencing rapid growth. "This new water treatment capability will open this area up to greater development, because no one wants to live where there is a lack of basic services and infrastructure," he explained.

Strategically Located: The new water treatment plant in Mendoza is located right in the middle of a rapidly growing part of Panama. Newly constructed roadways, specifically the addition of the Centenario Bridge and the expansion of the "old" highway to Chorrera is making this area more accessible and attractive for people to live.

Martin Torrijos Arrival: Once the "big cheese" sets down then everybody basically gets nervous. There were about 50 other cameras there and I didn't feel like fighting too hard for a shot, and I had already heard the briefing (from the same guys who were now briefing Martin Torrijos) so I basically was done at that point. There's got to be something more interesting around...

HP-9999 Presidential Helicopter: Kinda looks like a toy or a model, doesn't it? Hey, what do you know. I did a quick Google search and HP-9999 does not come up anywhere. Go figure. Oh well, it will now.

The Question Not Asked: Man, I just didn't have the heart. "Mr. President, what are your thoughts on the ongoing 'malicious compliance' strike being carried out by the Panama Canal Pilots?" I had the shot and I didn't take it. Why? Because Martin Torrijos was walking next to the CEO of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) Alberto Alemán Zubieta (in the white shirt to the right). If his answer was something along the lines of "Strike? What strike? What are you talking about?" then Alberto Alemán Zubieta would have been deeply and publicly embarrassed. Second, this was an ACP organized event, I was on ACP territory, and this was supposed to be a "feel good" story (more water is a good thing.) So, chalk this one up to the "question not asked" even though I had the shot. As far as I know Martin Torrijos has no idea about the Panama Canal pilots "work to rules" job action, and I didn't want to ambush him in this setting. It was a judgment call on my part - it just wasn't right.

And, Off They Go: The gaggle went over the hill to look at holes in the ground. I had had enough - I grabbed a bottle of water (thanks, ACP) and headed off. I wanted to beat the rush back to town. Oh yeah, one more thing...

That's Me, in the ACP Hat: Just to prove that their "shoot on sight" order is not working. The guys over at the ACP are really ticked-off at me right now for reporting on this canal pilot's strike. The ACP continues to make several fundamental errors in crisis management - first by flat-out lying to the media and then by trying to manipulate the situation through faulty and poorly planned attempts at information control and management. Whatever, this is their first pilot's strike. The ACP is much better at putting out "good news" stuff that's easy to chew and swallow (like this water treatment plant story.) I hope they figure out soon this "malicious compliance" strike is not going away. As a matter of fact I was informed yesterday the pilots are going to up the ante this week. Once the international (and then local) press wakes up to this story I'll probably get another shot to ask Martin Torrijos about the issue. I just hope he doesn't shoot back.

Copyright 2008 Text, Photos, and Video by Don Winner for Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.

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