LOS SANTOS, Panama – A stretch of the Mensabe River near the village of Peñablanca was a popular swimming spot for Panamanian families just one year ago, but a devastating drought has changed the situation dramatically and transformed that waterway into a rocky path to nowhere.
Like the Guarare and the Perales, which also are completely dry, the Mensabe is one of the major rivers in Los Santos, an agricultural province 300 kilometers (185 miles) west of Panama City that accounts for 80 percent of the nation’s corn production.
“Of the 45 sources of water we have here (rivers, streams, wells), 30 are dry or have extremely low water levels. It’s the worst drought ever in our country,” the Agricultural Development Ministry’s director in that province, Rodrigo Vera, lamented in an interview with EFE.
Los Santos is the Panamanian province hardest hit by the effects of climate change and El Niño, a warming of the surface water of the central to eastern tropical Pacific that is causing major environmental and socioeconomic disruptions worldwide.
This area of Panama known as the Dry Arc receives no more than 1,000 milliliters (around 40 inches) of rain annually, a scant amount compared to the remainder of the Central American country.
And in a country almost entirely devoid of artificial irrigation systems or reservoirs to harvest rainfall, the situation is brutally simple: without water, rivers and fields dry up and crops and livestock die.
In previous years, farmers in Los Santos harvested between 1.5 million quintals (around 50,000 tons) and 2 million quintals of corn.
This year, that level will fall to less than 600,000 quintals, according to Vera, who noted that much less corn was planted than usual – only 13,000 hectares (32,100 acres) – and that not a single corncob grew on 5,000 of those hectares.
The remaining area yielded an extremely poor harvest of 35 quintals of corn per hectare, far from the 110 quintals per hectare needed to cover production costs.
“They always say there are good years and bad years, but we’d never been battered like this before,” said Marco Cedeño, a corn grower who added he had had somewhat better luck than his fellow farmers but was still desperate for rainfall.
Panama suffered severe droughts in 1982 and 1998, but none as devastating as the current rain shortage, which the Panama Canal Authority says is the worst in 100 years.
The national government declared a state of emergency last August and approved a package of measures to combat the effects of El Niño and help the country’s agricultural sector, but they have not been entirely sufficient.
“I wish we could block the sun,” said Vera, the provincial Agricultural Development Ministry director.