Panama City’s Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructure Development

Having emerged from decades of tumult, Panama City is making strides through smart transportation, water and energy projects.

by Andrew Burger – Contributing Writer / August 5, 2014

Urban migration and land use change is straining the capacity and resources of governments to provide basic public goods and services while raising pressures on supporting ecosystems, ecosystems services and natural resources. Compounding the degradation of air, land and water quality, lack of efficient urban infrastructure is putting supplies of freshwater, food and energy at risk and constraining the provision of basic health, sanitation, education, and transportation services.

All this has given rise to a growing sustainable cities movement, a core aspect of which is making “smart” infrastructure investments centered on achieving long-term environmental and social, as well as economic, sustainability. Finding the methods and means to make cities more sustainable is a trend that's not only taking root in cities around the U.S., but across South and Central America, including the Republic of Panama.

The smallest country in Central America, Panama has the region's second largest and fastest growing economy, as well as its highest per capita income. Home to the Panama Canal – or at least its Pacific Ocean terminus – the capital, Panama City, is a logistics and offshore banking and financial services hub, as well as a center of international maritime trade and commerce.

Like many of its developing-world counterparts, Panama City's built environment has expanded rapidly, and somewhat haphazardly, over the decades, as has its population.

Urbanization has spread to the point where it's no great leap of imagination to envision a metropolitan area that extends across the 48-mile Panama Canal corridor, from its Pacific terminus just outside Panama City to the canal's Caribbean Sea terminus in Colón. A series of major infrastructure projects have come to fruition in recent years, however, giving Panameňos cause for optimism and raising hopes that city leaders and residents can find a sustainable development pathway that addresses the environmental, social and economic challenges this historic, yet most modern and dynamic, of Central American capital cities faces.

Emerging Metropolis

Panama City has all the makings of a modern, developing-world metropolis – with all the promise, challenges and problems encapsulated therein. The country's cultural, as well as political and commercial center, Panama City is home to some 1.2 million of the country's nearly 3.9 million population.

Panama City has expanded in every direction – including south into the Bay of Panama – continuously over the past decade. Spreading modernity and urbanization both highlight and mask numerous and varied challenges and problems such as a dual economy with a high level of wealth and income concentration and limited upward mobility as well as social discontent with government over a variety of issues, including the lack, or poor quality, of basic public services, corruption and privatization of public assets and services. Citizen displeasure has manifested in public demonstrations and even riots.

Then there are the environmental and ecological pressures resulting from urbanization. The construction of luxury residential and commercial high-rise towers along the Panama Bay coast not only highlights the glaring gaps between the haves and have-nots, it has resulted in severe consequences for natural tropical forest cover, waterways and coastal mangrove and reef ecosystems.

Upstream from Panama Bay, population growth and the rapid pace of property development has polluted all eight rivers in the city's watershed. Fortunately, Panama City's water supply comes from two reservoirs in the adjacent Panama Canal Watershed, where stricter, comprehensive water quality and usage regulations exist, conditions are more closely and thoroughly monitored and analyzed, and laws and regulations are more rigorously enforced. 

Intensifying these environmental pressures is climate change. Situated at or just meters above sea level, storm surges and rising sea levels, as well as changes in seasonal temperature and weather patterns, pose very real and profound threats to Panama's capital.

Despite the challenges there have been noticeable, and positive, change in Panama City with regard to urban sustainability over the past five years. Panama City is now home to Central America's first metro subway system. Enveloped in the city center by a public bay-side park that includes recreational facilities and a sports stadium, a new coastal thruway – Cinta Costera (Coastal Ribbon) – has been built. Perhaps most impressive of all the recent infrastructure investments, however, is “Proyecto Saneamiento de la Ciudad y la Bahía de Panama,” the Panama Bay and City Water Sanitation Project.

Sustainability via Smart Infrastructure Investments

Growing vehicular traffic is a serious and growing health and environmental problem in developing countries and urban centers worldwide. With the highest per-capita rate of car ownership in Central America, vehicular traffic and congestion in Panama has proven an increasingly costly headache for city planners, managers, businesses and residents.

One recent success in relieving traffic congestion, while at the same time providing residents and visitors access to a 62-acre public park, has been the Cinta Costera. The beltway traverses the Panama Bay-side edge of the city's core, then up and around a causeway encircling the southwestern tip of Casco Viejo, the Spanish colonial-era capital, site of the presidential palace. Begun in October 2007, the project was completed in June 2009 at a cost of $189.1 million.

Panama City is also home to the first metro subway/rail system in Central America. Nearly five years in the making, Panama Metro's Line 1, was commissioned with much public fanfare on April 5. Ricardo Martinelli, who served as Panama’s president from 2009-2014, helped lead the effort to construct the line.

Running roughly north-south and spanning 8.5 miles, Panama Metro Line 1 has 12 stations, with two more due to open in August. Total project cost has been pegged at $1.8 billion.

Building on Martinelli's efforts, President Juan Carlos Varela – inaugurated July 1 – signed a $32 million contract with Louis Berger, part of the PML2 (Panama Metro Line 2) consortium, to oversee construction of Panama City Metro's 13-mile second line within a month of being sworn into office. Panama's National Master Plan calls for construction of four Metro lines.

Though less visible, perhaps the most significant and longest lasting benefits to be realized from Panama's recent urban infrastructure investments will come from the Panama Bay and City Water Sanitation Project. A massive undertaking, the aim is to clean up polluted Panama Bay, as well as assure potable freshwater supplies throughout the Panama City metro area out to 2035, according to project Assistant Director Agustin Ordóňez.

A Long Time Coming

Breaking ground in 2009, the Panama Bay and City Water Sanitation Project will eventually feature three modular biological nutrient removal (BNR) wastewater treatment plants. The first plant came online in May 2013 at a cost of some $220 million, Ordóňez said. With the project's first phase now about 90 percent complete, beneficial social, environmental and economic impacts are already noticeable.

“This is one of the most advanced wastewater treatment facilities and systems in Latin America,” Ordóňez said. “And it's the first secondary water treatment facility in Central America.”

According to Ordóňez, plans to build a water sanitation system for Panama City stretch all the way back to 1959, when the Panamanian government commissioned the first of a what turned out be a series of studies stretching across ensuing decades.

In the 1960s, however, Panama descended into a period of military dictatorship. Following the ouster of Manuel Noriega in 1989, democracy returned to the nation. In 2000 the Panamanian government, in collaboration with the Panama Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, issued the first regulations governing water discharges. President Mireya Moscoso followed that up in 2001 with the completion of Panama's National Master Plan.

Commissioned during Moscoso's term as president, environmental engineering company Hazen and Sawyer completed a feasibility and design study for a metro-area wide water sanitation system in 2004. Limited in extent, construction of the sanitation system began in 2006 as Panama City was in the midst of a real estate boom.

The Panama Bay and City Water Sanitation Project

Today, some 280,000 cubic meters of wastewater are discharged across the Panama City metro area, Ordóňez said. Connected to the two most important of Panama City watershed's eight rivers, the first wastewater treatment plant has a maximum capacity of 2.2 cubic meters/second (m3/s). At present, it's treating waste and storm water flows of between 1.5-1.7 m3/s, releasing clean water into Panama Bay.

Under the jurisdiction of Panama’s Ministry of Health (Minsa) work on the Panama Bay and City Water Sanitation Project continues, with the system's network of canals, pipes and tunnels expanding. All eventually connect with two enormous interceptor tunnels that each run 5 miles – one east, one west – not far from the Panama Bay coast. Three meters in diameter, the interceptor tunnels lay 25 meters underground, collecting waste and storm water discharges from across the Panama City metro area watershed and channel it to the wastewater treatment plant.

In addition to cleaning up Panama Bay and watershed, Minsa is also recovering methane from the wastewater treatment plant's anaerobic digesters, using it to provide nearly 20 percent of the plant's electricity and all of its heating needs. In addition to the savings from cogeneration, this may yield revenue for the project. As Ordonez explained, Minsa officials are optimistic about an application for United Nations Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) carbon emissions offset credits that has been submitted.

Overall, Panama City's water sanitation project has cost $970 million to date. With a planning horizon stretching out to 2035, Minsa is overseeing plans and working with the Ministry of the Economy and Finance to build two more wastewater treatment plants identical to the first. Tentatively slated for completion in 2016, that would bring the city's wastewater treatment capacity to 6.6 m3/s, Ordóňez said.

Boding well for the future, public health and sanitation are high priorities for President Varela and his administration. Shortly after being sworn into office on July 1, the president announced “100/0” – a campaign to assure that potable freshwater is available throughout the country, as well as eliminate all open sewers and cesspools. That's good news for all Panameňos, especially future generations, as well as those who come to this historic, yet modern, Central American capital city as guests.

Andrew Burger is an independent journalist, researcher and writer who covers topics such as ecology, technology, politics, economy and sociology. His lifelong quest for knowledge of the world and self -- not to mention gainful employment -- has led him near and far afield, from Europe, Asia and the Middle East to Africa and across the Americas.




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