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Meet six people fighting water scarcity across the globe

Its seeming ubiquity masks its growing scarcity. More than 10% of humanity lacks access to it while 90% of natural disasters are linked to it. Wars are fought over it. Women in poor countries spend their days hauling it. Major cities — Sâo Paulo, Capetown — have nearly run out of it.

The water crisis that experts have been warning about for decades has arrived. A warming climate and growing population mean a dwindling supply of fresh water. A scientist, activist and entrepreneur are among those on the front lines of the efforts to provide clean water.

In August, US authorities ordered the first-ever rationing on the Colorado River system that sustains 40 million people, the latest blow from a decades-long drought across the West that has shrunk reservoirs to historic lows and set the stage for deadly forest fires. Farmers in California’s Central Valley have been ripping out almond trees, while dairy farms are sending cows to slaughter.

A third of all farming relies on depleting groundwater, with hot spots emerging not only in California and the Middle East but in the giant crop belts of the Americas, the high plains of northern China, and northwest India. Disruptions to rivers threaten communities and upend shipping routes.

Managed properly, there’s enough water on the planet. But managing water raises questions that expose core beliefs and fears as fraught as managing society itself.

Is access to fresh water a basic human right? Are markets the wisest means of distribution or a Hobbesian marginalisation of the weak? Is any country willing to rely on another for water? What did the world learn from Covid-19? The need for increased global cooperation or the inevitability of nationalism?

Here are six individuals across the world who’ve devoted themselves to the challenge of maintaining fresh water access.

Vilches. Image: Tamara Merino/Bloomberg

Carolina Vilches

Rewriting Chile’s constitution to redistribute water rights

On a springlike winter day, Carolina Vilches drives along dirt roads near the central Chilean town of Petorca, offering a glimpse of her country’s internal struggle over water. On one side she points to flourishing fields of irrigated avocados destined for supermarkets in Europe and Asia. On the other is a parched dust bowl where villagers truck in a daily water allotment. Graffiti demand: “Give us back our water.”

Rainfall and Andean snowmelt used to be so abundant in Chile that the state rarely felt the need to measure flows, and few went without. In 2019, as drought and the effects of climate change became impossible to ignore, the government acknowledged that water levels in recent years have fallen by more than half in some areas.  Water access was one of a long list of issues behind violent street demonstrations that broke out later that year.

Petorca is one of those regions. It was the cheek-by-jowl disparity between dusty and verdant that lured Vilches, a single mother, to dedicate herself to water justice. A geographer by training, she founded the Office of Water Affairs of Petorca and belongs to a self-described hydro-feminist collective called La Gota Negra. Four decades of stark market-focused access are running headlong into shifting conditions, propelling Vilches and her cause onto a national stage. She’s one of 155 delegates elected to write a new constitution that may, among other things, recalibrate water distribution and rights.

For Vilches, 36, the changing conditions have simply exposed the original injustice. As she puts it, “This isn’t due to drought but to looting.”

More so than any other country, Chile is a model for private water services. Born in the 1980s under dictatorship with encouragement from the World Bank and University of Chicago economists, the system has created some of the world’s most profitable utilities and a thriving agricultural industry. Fruit alone generates more than a half-million jobs and $5.7 billion in exports. But more and more, small-time farmers and consumers are left high and dry.

The avocado harvest at an irrigated farm in Petorca. Image: Tamara Merino/Bloomberg

Chileans view the system as either integral to their living in the richest and most stable economy in the region or their subjugation to a neoliberal doctrine fostering criminal levels of inequality. Almost half the rural population lacks formal potable water supply, with scarcity affecting about a million people, according to a study from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Of rural communities without formal supply, 15% rely on trucked water.

“Water needs to be a basic right in our constitution,” Vilches says. “Even in places where water is available, the state doesn’t invest in drinking water networks and infrastructure because it doesn’t have the duty to protect that right. We need to deprivatise water—prioritise its use first to sustain the territories, second to the population’s water and food, and third production.”

The state hands out extraction rights with no expiration date. The rights can be traded as private property. Companies deliver water and sanitation services under 30-year concessions. Given the country’s dependence on natural resource industries that use massive quantities of water, change is coming. For example, a bill setting limits on entitlements and enshrining access to water as a human right passed the Senate unanimously in late July after lingering in Congress for a decade.

Vilches’s life has been turned upside down since her election in May to the Constitutional Convention. A onetime community activist, she now spends weekdays in Santiago and has a full-time advisory team. Jovial when conversation is light and deadly serious when it turns to water, she’s squarely on the side of the losers—especially her neighbors in Petorca who wait for the water trucks. “We’ve already begun to use up the groundwater, which is like the river’s savings account,” she says.

Of rural Chilean communities without formal supply, 15% rely on trucked water. Image: Tamara Merino/Bloomberg

Vilches, like many, blames the priority accorded big business; farming accounts for 78% of water consumption. The agriculture industry counters that the crisis is about drought, a lack of investment, and clumsy bureaucracy. The solution lies in clear rules and a coordinated strategy involving more dams, desalination plants, recycling and modern irrigation, says Jorge Valenzuela, president of fruit-grower group Fedefruta. “We’re 10 years into a water crisis that is an unresolved structural problem,” Valenzuela said at a seminar in July. “Today, if you want to speak about water with the Chilean state, you have to speak with 44 related institutions.”

Whoever is more at fault, the crisis is manifest in El Bronce, one of Petorca’s most affected areas. Each day at 4 p.m., Margarita Guerrero opens the tap of a small dam that supplies 12 families. For two hours the water flows to fill personal reservoirs. In her yard, Guerrero has a couple of blue drums for her family, including her 5-year-old grandson. Once supplied from rain and the river, the water now comes by truck. For years each person was allotted 50 liters (13 gallons), but a supreme court ruling in March doubled it, and deliveries now come daily rather than three times a week.

Upstream from El Bronce, María Inés Catalina Espinoza and her husband, José Bruna, grow apricots and oranges. She has a clear view of small, parched plots alongside a lush, sprawling avocado plantation. She recalls when the plantation owner recruited her neighbors 30 years ago to help him set up groundwater irrigation.

“None of us knew then that this would harm us so much in the future,” Espinoza, 54, says. —Valentina Fuentes and James Attwood

Gleick. Image: Marissa Leshnov/Bloomberg

Peter Gleick

Creating the field of water management

When Peter Gleick graduated from Yale in the late 1970s with an engineering degree, he knew one thing: he didn’t want to be an engineer. He was fascinated by big systems and big questions, and drawn to the nascent field of environmental science. It wasn’t long before he started thinking about water—its importance to every aspect of life, its unequal distribution, and how rising temperatures, industrial projects, and increasing population were shrinking its availability. He got a doctorate in energy at the University of California at Berkeley and set out to apply it to water in an academic setting. The problem was that neither the field nor such an appointment existed.

In the ‘80s, Gleick, in effect, created an applied academic discipline—fresh water management—and built a place to study it and offer solutions, the Pacific Institute. Soon he was explaining what questions needed to be asked, as well as how to go about answering them. For someone without an academic appointment (his institute started out in two rooms in a cheap Berkeley office building), he soon made his mark on the scholarly world. In 2003, he was awarded a MacArthur genius grant and three years later membership in the exclusive National Academy of Sciences. In other words, Gleick launched a vital area of research and then became one of its most important contributors.

He drew key lessons from petroleum. The engineering achievements of exploring, drilling, and fueling had brought untold benefits. But as the 21st century approached, they also brought such unintended consequences as pollution and global warming. The equivalents for water were the magisterial dams of earlier decades. In the process of making so many things possible, they had destroyed rivers, flooded towns, and created consumption habits that needed to be unlearned. The costs in both cases were cumulative, like the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Just as society needed to increase energy efficiency and find alternative sources to oil—what iconoclastic scholar Amory Lovins labeled “soft energy paths”—Gleick argued that what was needed were “soft water paths” to manage demand and improve efficiency. “Peak oil,” a climax and then decline in oil production as costs outweigh benefits, served as inspiration for his concept of “peak water,” which seeks to define when things such as pumping and contamination make the cost of use prohibitive.

“Water, like energy and climate, is a highly complex issue that is not an engineering problem alone,” says Gleick, 64, a trim, New York-born, lightly bearded birdwatcher. “It touches on economics and politics and needs to be integrated across sectors.”

He makes a further point: “The extremes of weather we now see around the world, from fires in Europe and the western United States to intensifying hurricanes and typhoons, are manifestations of human-caused climate change. My dissertation work 35 years ago focused on the role human-caused climate change would play in water availability in California.”

For nearly all of history, water has been there for the taking. New York City didn’t meter for it until the 1980s. It turns out that society uses the most water in two sectors: to cool energy plants and grow food. Rising temperatures and droughts are challenging both, leading to power plant shutdowns and increased competition. Fresh water is a renewable resource, part of a cycle involving evaporation, rain, snow, and drainage. The water we use today was drunk not only by the ancients but by dinosaurs. It isn’t all renewable, however—not at the rate we use it. If we pump ground water faster than it is being replaced, it will become too expensive or too difficult to collect.

Gleick also pioneered examining water through the lens of national security. (The word “rival” comes from someone using the same stream as someone else.). His further contributions include a paper laying out 50 liters, or 13 gallons, as the minimum each human needs daily; it made the case for water access as a basic human right, which led the United Nations General Assembly to do the same in 2010.

While he’s worried, Gleick is no doomsayer and considers the market a legitimate player. He notes that we use much less water today than we did a few decades ago, thanks substantially to the market. When spiking water prices made growing cotton in California expensive, the amount grown fell drastically.

At the same time, he can’t get over our failures regarding water distribution. More than 2 billion people lack basic sanitation. Hundreds of millions lack safe and affordable water, leading millions to die every year from water-related diseases.

“It’s like Covid,” he says. “The failure to provide sanitation to people is not about lack of technology or money. It’s about corruption and inequality.” —Ethan Bronner

Roykaew. Image: Luke Duggleby/Bloomberg

Niwat Roykaew

Offering a new model for rivers

The villagers call him Kru Tee or Teacher Tee. Rail-thin, 61 years old, with flowing gray hair and a self-possessed intensity, he taught school for years, absorbing the values and concerns of Thai communities and their links to the Mekong.

The 3,000-mile river starts at the Tibetan Plateau and courses through six countries, feeding and shaping the lives of hundreds of millions. Niwat Roykaew has spent almost his entire existence on its banks and is, today, the river’s most influential advocate. Through his Rak Chiang Khong Conservation Group, Niwat offers classes on the river and organizes grassroots campaigns.

He’s up against powerful forces: China’s government, hydropower dams, commercial shipping. Niwat documents the river’s plunging water levels, shrinking fish stocks, and loss of rice-fertilizing silt, then uses the data to organize communities, pointing the way to river management for the coming century.

A fisherman drives his boat along the Mekong River in Chiang Rai, Thailand, in September. Photographer: Luke Duggleby/Bloomberg

“We are not against development,” Niwat says. “We’re looking for sustainable and participatory development. No one in the cities feels the importance of the river as strongly as we do. It’s my task to stop the harm.”

The Mekong offers one of the clearest examples of how water supply affects policy. The river starts in China and passes through Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia before emptying into Vietnam’s delta. Almost three decades ago, China started to build hydropower stations, damming the river upstream, where it is known as the Lancang. Laos is now doing it as well. Eleven massive dams straddle the river in China.

They are awe-inspiring engineering feats that provide water and clean power, replacing coal. But as with many dams around the globe, there have been unanticipated consequences. The dams severely disrupt the river’s flow and depth and ability to provide. In Niwat’s village, white fish, which locals eat regularly, are disappearing.

The river typically rises in June, and its floods deposit sediments, fertilising the land for rice and other crops. Fish also depend on the natural flow to migrate and breed. All those processes have been interrupted. Droughts have set in.

A man carries bean sprouts, grown for generations in Chiang Khong along the banks of the Mekong River. Image: Luke Duggleby/Bloomberg

In 2019, the Mekong saw its lowest water level in a half-century, and most analyses, including a U.S.-government funded report, blame the dams. China’s embassy in Thailand said the study was “politically motivated, aimed at targeting China with ill intent.”

Beijing treats water data as a matter of national security, historically providing it only during the flood season from two of its stations, an amount deemed “insufficient” for management purposes by the Mekong River Commission.

Some of the damage is more cultural and emotional than physical. When many locals wake up, the first thing they see is the river where, as children, they went daily with their parents to fetch water and fish. Its decline takes a big toll. Such matters must not be ignored, Niwat insists.

One of his group’s biggest crusades has been against the Lancang-Mekong Navigation Channel Improvement Project, a two-decade venture to ease the passage of large ships and freighters. Called the “rapids blasting project” by the local communities, the project would turn the river into a canalized waterway for commercial navigation. Niwat worries it would threaten the ecosystem and local traditions.

In 2018, Niwat led villagers onto boats with banners proclaiming, “Stop Rapids Blasting” in Thai, English, and Chinese. In early 2020, they saw at least partial success: The Thai cabinet shut down the project.

The Mekong region has become a battleground where the U.S. and China both seek influence, but Niwat says he can bridge those divides. In 2014, China started the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism to expand its engagement. Last year, the U.S. and five lower Mekong nations countered with the Mekong-U.S. Partnership.

In a video conference with foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Nations in early 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken “pledged continued U.S. support for a free and open Mekong region under the Mekong-U.S. Partnership.”

Niwat helped form the Mekong People’s Forum, which collects work from conservation groups and people in various provinces in Thailand. He has seen results.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the country would increase its sharing of hydrological information; in January, China notified downstream neighbors it was holding back river flow at the Jinghong dam.

“I believe that China is listening to us,” Niwat says. He notes that the Chinese ambassador in Bangkok makes the point that both countries drink from the same river. That, Niwat says, makes them brothers and sisters.

“If the mother is wounded or dies, all of us—children of the same mother—will be hurt,” he says. —Karoline Kan

Wedgwood. Image: Olivia Harris/Bloomberg

Alison Wedgwood

Bringing water to remote areas through cellphones

For two decades, Alison Wedgwood helped design water and sanitation programs for nonprofits and aid agencies from Sri Lanka to Kenya. The goal was to empower communities and elevate access. It was vital work but frustrating—almost half the systems failed within two years.

“Not one of those programs I worked on functions now,” she says. “Water programs were a lot of money going into nothing.”

Around 2015, Wedgwood had an epiphany: Far more people in the developing world had mobile phones than plumbing. She stumbled on the idea of applying cellphone technology to water. Water might no longer be free, but it would be dependable.

She and engineer-turned-entrepreneur Rob Hygate launched EWater Services Ltd., which charges communities in Tanzania, Ghana, and Gambia for access to clean water via pay-as-you-go dispensers in village centers. The cost is about $6 a year (cell phone is $30), but they’ve found that even such a small sum vastly reduces waste typical of systems that are free. As water flows, credit is deducted from a user’s magnetic tag that’s linked to an account used to pay maintenance workers.

“Water is a human right, but transferring, delivering, and making it safe to drink has a cost,” Wedgwood says at her home in Staffordshire, in the West Midlands of England. “People are prepared to pay for water as long as they can rely on that service.”

In countries like Tanzania, groundwater is relatively abundant. The challenge is providing reliable access to the supplies. And as temperatures rise, bringing more intense dry spells, the stakes for gaining that access go up.

Economists say trillions of dollars of value could be unlocked in developing economies if clean water, toilets, and hygiene were widely available.

That’s Wedgwood’s goal. Her solar-powered system requires little bandwidth, so it works even in low-connectivity areas. It often makes use of existing boreholes, and automation means it’s not limited to when an attendant can open the tap; with more reliable taps, women spend far less time hauling water. EWater is still a startup, but has served 150,000 people. There are plans for the company to scale up, increasing its tap tally from 400 to 3,000 by the end of 2022 and expanding into Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, and Nigeria.

For now, free pumps funded by governments and nonprofits remain the main way for remote communities to get water. The two models need not clash as long as paid services don’t squeeze their customers, according to Jonathan Farr, a senior policy analyst at WaterAid, which operates in 27 countries and is trying to ensure that pumps are maintained.

“If there’s a way of institutionalizing those payments—and that provision that guarantees a certain level of quality and equality of access actually may bring down the cost per liter—then that could be a good thing,” Farr says.

It’s been a lesson for Wedgwood, a coal miner’s daughter who’s always been a nonconformist. As a student, she fought her way onto Cambridge University’s ski team despite sticking out with her thick regional accent among a posh crowd. She left arm-in-arm with her future husband, a member of the family that created the eponymous English ceramics line. While aboard Greenpeace’s MV Sirius, she was attacked by Sicilian fishermen and arrested by Greek police.

A 51-year-old cancer survivor and former town councillor, Wedgwood says wielding private-sector principles against the conventional model of water development is exactly what’s needed. The other way has failed because of incompetence, groupthink, and corruption.

UN goals include clean water within a 30-minute walk. Wedgwood says that’s too far. The two most common models of hand pumps—the Afridev and India Mark II—haven’t changed much since the 1970s, she adds, and are still being installed.

With the cost of drilling, aid programs can spend $50 000 to install a new borehole. They often break down less than two years later, and reliable maintenance is rarely on hand.

“You’ve got a bloody smartphone in every home, so why don’t you have water?” she asks.

Her patented taps use a prepayment system from mobile phones and cost less than hand pumps. There’s no heavy lifting of pumps or creaking handles. The technology has won acclaim at the U.K. Tech Awards and the Global Mobile Award. The closest rival of EWater’s taps, Danish manufacturer Grundfos AS’s AQtap, requires a bulkier unit.

Wedgwood monitors EWater’s 400 taps from her home in Staffordshire. Image: Olivia Harris/Bloomberg

Wedgwood shows off on her computer a dashboard that monitors all 400 taps, showing the amount of water dispensed and when something needs to be fixed.

EWater’s mobile payment app, integrated with Stripe Inc. to allow payments from overseas, logs data on the cloud. Over the next two years, Wedgwood’s company plans to issue a water bond to raise at least $30 million with help from private investors and the International Finance Corp. With new programs in Kenya using cash from private investors, Wedgwood is trying to prove that the model is sustainable enough to pay back financing reliably. Her husband, Tom, is the director of Newton, a consulting firm, and has invested about £2 million ($2.8 million) in her company.

Wedgwood wants to eventually hand over EWater to staff based in Africa, perhaps via a management buyout.

“Water is left behind,” she says, comparing it with government backing of climate change projects. “In this sector, you’ve got to be proud to be private.” —Todd Gillespie and James Attwood

Ed Peter

Buys up water rights and leases them to farmers

When Ed Peter pitched to investors not long ago, he described droughts in Australia as “beautiful” and “fun,” with “huge free cash flow.” His company, Duxton Water, buys up water rights and leases them to farmers. Profits surge when conditions are driest.

Rejoicing over a desiccated landscape is no way to win admirers. Helen Dalton, the parliamentarian from New South Wales, described Peter’s pitch as “sickening,” noting indignantly: “Duxton Water made millions during the previous drought—the one where mothers in Far West NSW had to bathe their babies with bottled water.”

Yet profiting from the misery of others is hardly limited to those in the water business—think lawyers, journalists, and plumbers. As the planet warms and water becomes less plentiful, those who understand the discipline of markets are forcing an uncomfortable reckoning over a long-ignored question: Where and how should water be used?

Peter, a Swiss-born American living in Adelaide, is one of them. Following a 35-year career that included selling equities at Swiss Bank Corp. (now part of UBS Group) and managing assets for Deutsche Bank in Asia and North Africa, he’s focusing on something specific and tangible. Even as its price adjusts with inflation, water goes to the highest and best use, he says, yielding the best return. “Next time we have a drought, the almond industry alone will need more water than we have in the river,” Peter says. He likes to call his five-year-old company a “water bank.”

Many countries have water exchange markets. Last year, California opened the first futures market for water, placing it alongside gold and oil to be traded on Wall Street. Australia’s market is considered among the most advanced. Water can be traded via entitlements that have different tiered values. Its defining feature is the separation of land from ownership, meaning anyone can purchase water rights; asset managers, hedge funds, and farmers alike can sell them for a profit.

Modest environmental caps limit what can be extracted from the colossal water system of the Murray-Darling Basin, on which more than 3 million people rely for drinking water. The caps adjust as the climate turns, and the price of water follows.

Peter grasped the opportunity about a decade ago. He recalls thinking: “We could see a long-term story where the cost of water was going to go up.” He got that right. In 2019 it went up—way up. In the country’s harshest drought in 100 years, entitlement prices brought the agriculture industry, and rural Australia, to its knees.

That’s where Duxton performs the role of financier, Peter says. It’s able to help farmers remove pricey permanent rights from their balance sheets by buying up rights and renting them back. It’s win-win, he says. Institutional investors make money, and farmers get a workaround to the banks’ historical reluctance to lend against water assets.

That’s not how many see it. “Water speculators” such as Peter, they say, are profiteering from shrinking resources. They are prone to hoarding — money machines that maximise water costs to farmers hamstrung by a climate emergency.

A recent independent investigation into competition in the water market found little evidence of manipulation or hoarding, but it did complain of a lack of transparency and information. Despite Australia’s sophisticated water-trading system, it has no general regulatory framework as one finds in the stock market. The system is grappling with a rapidly changing climate.

In the past two years, as trading has swelled, millions of fish have suffocated in rivers overrun with toxic algae. Ancient red gum trees that line the disintegrating river banks are decaying as the supporting soil erodes. Perhaps the biggest tragedy are majority-indigenous towns that, amid the strict rerouting of the system into terms of economic merit, simply ran out of water.

If you ask Peter, there just isn’t enough water to go around, and while the Australian system isn’t perfect, it’s one of the best in the world. “Attributing value to water is actually incredibly important,” he says. “We’ve got a rarefied amount of water; we have to ration it.” — Sybilla Gross and James Attwood

Espino de Marotta. Image: Tova Katzman/Bloomberg

Ilya Espino de Marotta

Finding more water for the Panama Canal 

Ilya Espino de Marotta has never shied from challenging convention. A Panamanian engineer who roams the locks of her country’s magnificent canal in a bright-pink hardhat (“a message that yes, I’m a girl and I can do this job”), she’s consistently rejected groupthink, helping propel her to executive vice president—second-in-command — of the Canal Authority.

Even she had no idea, when she started 35 years ago, how radical a change lay ahead. She expected ships to grow bigger and computers to get smaller. It never occurred to her, however, that Panama, one of the wettest countries on Earth, would stop getting the rainfall needed for the canal to thrive. That’s what’s happened. Today, Espino de Marotta has less time to lament the glass ceiling for women because she’s focused on an entirely unexpected obstacle: The Panama Canal is running out of water.

A measuring stick in Pedro Miguel helps workers keep track of water levels in the canal. Photographer: Tova Katzman/Bloomberg

“Water was so abundant,” she recalls of her early days. “It wasn’t at the top of our minds.” Only in recent years, she adds, “We saw the changes of the rainfall patterns.”

Four of the past seven years, including 2019, have brought unprecedented droughts, forcing the canal to restrict what’s known as the draft — the depth at which ships can sit as they pass through the waterway; the more cargo a ship carries, the lower it sits. On top of the droughts have come unexpectedly destructive storms. The combination, along with increased demand for drinking water by the growing population of Panama City, is forcing Espino de Marotta and her colleagues to seek bidders for a $2 billion project to find new sources of water.

Since its 1914 opening, the 50-mile (80-kilometre) Panama Canal has been hailed as an engineering marvel. It links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans across highly uneven terrain via a water bridge that — through a system of locks and tens of millions of gallons of water—raises ships by hydraulic propulsion to an artificial lake and then drops them on the other side. Vessels filled with gas, copper, bananas, and cars are pulled through, accounting for 4% of global shipping.

In 2016, Espino de Marotta oversaw a massive expansion of the canal, but the water-saving basins built alongside the wider locks didn’t make up for declining water supplies. That is now her central concern for a project aimed for completion in 2028. It is likely to combine approaches: diversion from other sources, reuse of waste water, and perhaps desalination.

“Things have changed, so we need to change,” Espino de Marotta says.

Espino de Marotta is happiest in the field. She walks onto a balcony overlooking the canal at the Miraflores locks while a container ship crosses, then peers into the distance. Seeing a second large vessel immobile, she asks why it isn’t moving. Below, a small specialist boat crosses the canal, and she snaps a picture on her phone. It was dispatched in the morning to inspect for a potential oil spill—a false alarm. In just a few hours, she will be off to inspect maintenance work at the canal’s Atlantic end.

After passing through the Miraflores locks, a shipping vessel will continue to the Pedro Miguel locks before passing under Centennial Bridge. Image: Tova Katzman/Bloomberg

A marine engineer and mother of three, Espino de Marotta graduated from Texas A&M University and became one of just two women working in the canal shipyard. She held numerous posts before leading the $5.25 billion expansion.

Since the water that feeds the canal’s two artificial lakes is also drunk by more than 2 million people, tension has arisen between two vital needs.

“We want to guarantee that we can provide potable water for the population and a competitive and reliable draft for transiting vessels.” Espino de Marotta says, noting that in the pandemic era shipping has taken on added significance.

Climate change is inescapable. The rainy season is starting later, according to Steve Paton of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. In addition to droughts, the country has experienced 8 of its 10 greatest storms over the past 21 years, and reservoirs aren’t big enough to capture excess water and store it for dry periods. In 2010, intense rains almost toppled one of the canal’s dams and forced the waterway to close temporarily for the first time since 1989.

“Changing weather patterns at a global level are having a very local effect here in Panama,” Paton says.

The result, Espino de Marotta says, is that water can no longer be taken for granted. Specialists monitor lake levels and rainfall daily, tracking evaporation. Hydrologists meet weekly to draft a plan to save water over the next two weeks.

“We monitor water all the time now,” she says. “That’s the whole intent.” —Michael McDonald

© 2021 Bloomberg

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