Water Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”

~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ~

Atrazine is an herbicide used to prevent pre and post-emergence broad-leaf weeds in crops such as maize (corn) and sugarcane and it is used heavily in Panama.  The extensive use of the weed killer has also led to runoff in lakes, streams and sometimes in drinking water.  It’s been found in unacceptable levels for the second time this year in the La Villa de Los Santos River effecting the drinking water by towns all the way from La Arena to Las Tablas, 14 districts, 83,000 people and two water plants in total.  On Friday an order was given from the Ministry of Health (Ministerio de Salud) and bottled water and water trucks travelled throughout the effected districts to deliver fresh water.

Atrazine was removed from the market in Europe in 2004 and is not permitted to be used even in Switzerland, the home of the manufacturer.  Some studies suggest a possible association between atrazine and ovarian, breast and prostate cancers and birth defects including smaller male genitals and other congenital birth defects.  Atrazine may only increase corn yield by as little as 1.2 % or not at all according to some studies.  We’ve often noticed how easy it is to get chemicals, even ones that are banned for use in North America.

I don’t know the back story on how the country now finds water contamination or what a suitable ppb (parts per billion) ratio is for Panama.  The last weekly measurement found high levels of the herbicide; although the government claims it is a low-toxicity, the levels detected are above the acceptable limits.  Atrazine is still used in North America and levels in drinking water differ in different areas of the country and different times of the year. In areas where there are more corn crops and a greater application of the pesticide there is the possibility for higher runoff and therefore contamination.  In Canada an acceptable amount in drinking water has been set at 5 parts per billion. In the United States, the level has been set at 3 parts per billion.

In our district we don’t get our water from the Los Santos River and so we aren’t affected by the water ban only a half hour down the road.  We didn’t know anything of the water problems but there was a hint when we weren’t able to buy fountain pop or coffee while we were in Chitre on Saturday, from machines connected to running water. We also saw government trucks loaded with water bottles and the water trucks throughout Las Tablas.  The last time this happened, in June, bottled water became difficult to find.  President Varela has indicated that a committee has been formed to check the country’s water sources. Water from treatment plants, rural water, deep wells and artesian wells will be sampled to check the quality of  the water that almost 4 million people are drinking. The samples will be tested within 25 limits, something that is only being done for the first time according to the President Varela.  There is also a plan to bring awareness to the population about the pollution of waterways.  In the meantime the government will continue to supply fresh water to the districts falling under the ban until the contamination has been cleared.

It does make one wonder how often water contamination has occurred in Panama and what was done about it and what farm/empresa will be the culprit this time…in the campo.

Rio la Villa 1 Rio la Villa 2


About indacampo

You'll find me at https://indacampo.wordpress.com/ blogging about Panama...and other things.
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11 Responses to Water Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

  1. We were in the Las Tablas and Guararé area in July and saw the fall-out from the first discovery of the river’s contamination as well as a student demonstration outside of Chitre. I imagine that the population affected is much more incensed regarding the contamination the second time around! Anita

    • indacampo says:

      Yes, there was another protest on Saturday afternoon. We got out of Chitre before it took place. Here’s hoping that something is done but the locals don’t always hold up so much hope. 🙂

  2. allison says:

    When we were in Las Tablas at popular restaurant for lunch about two weeks ago, the owner was still not serving glasses of water. He just wasn’t convinced at the time. Glad it doesn’t come your way! It is wonderful though the alerts that are sent out–who would have thought we would have such great communication in this 3rd world, I mean, developing nation!

    • indacampo says:

      There are still many people who are suspicious about acceptable levels of atrazine. Despite my research I couldn’t find what the levels were in Panama and the Ministerio Salud site wasn’t helpful at all. It appears that the whole la Villa River basin is in jeopardy from agriculture and deforestation. There is a move to correct that and hopefully it will come to fruition. In the meantime I’m glad our water comes from a cisterna and not from a river. 🙂

  3. http://www.newsroompanama.com/news/panama/another-poisoned-water-crisis-in-azuero. According to this article, they aren’t supposed to be using atrazine. Today’s news says the ban has been lifted. Maybe they are starting to be more careful about harmful chemicals and the water supply, which is a very good thing.

  4. pklainer says:

    Karen, there have been issues about runoff in the drinking water in the Farallon area as well. As you know, local people can’t really afford to buy bottled water for all of their needs. It’s a huge problem, enforcing the ban on insecticides and then waiting for the ground water to become safe again. Keep us posted.

    • indacampo says:

      I had a good discussion today with our Spanish teacher. He’s young and educated and is not convinced that the water has been good for a very long time. Luckily he lives near one of the electric cistermas in Las Tablas and has been taking the drinking water for his household from there since the first incident in June. When I mentioned that I’d found a study on line indicating the incidence of various cancers was very high in the la Villa River basin area he was happy that I cared enough to do the research. Even though it appears the ban has been lifted I think he’ll continue to draw his water from the well, he says he’s not as stupid as the government thinks he is. He is also concerned about others in the area that don’t have access to the cisternas. It seems like when this country takes a few steps forward it doesn’t take long to take a step or two back. Here’s hoping that something will actually be done about water quality.

      • pklainer says:

        I’m hopeful too. Some of the people in Rio Hato tell me that the water sometimes has a high level of sediment in it and tastes odd. That doesn’t sound good to me.

      • indacampo says:

        I was trying to read something yesterday about a “brown” type of contamination from sugar cane production. I wouldn’t doubt that the sediment they might be getting isn’t really sediment at all. The more I read the more I think that there is much more to this problem than just a few days of contamination. There is also a problem with piggeries contaminating the rivers. One can only hope that the new government puts some money and personal into cleaning up the water ways. Education would be a good place to start.

      • pklainer says:

        Oh dear. Drinking dirt is one thing, but drinking something else in the water surely isn’t good. The infrastructure needs all over Panama are so huge. But this could be a real public health crisis. I hope it goes to the top of the list. A new subway is convenient. and given the traffic in Panama City, necessary. Clean water is a matter of basic well being.

  5. cicero3332 says:

    It’s too bad that a nationwide ban on Atrazine isn’t being considered, given the risks associated with its use. The EU is typically many years ahead of the Americas when it comes to protecting public health.

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