[IQP] Food, Energy, Water (FEW) nexus analysis in the Panama Canal watershed

Sponsor: National Science Foundation IRES Grant
Student Team: Michael Bucknor
Sarah Bucknam
Veronica Delaney
Sarah Rose Terwilliger
Will Temple
Abstract: Food, Energy, and Water are components of a complex web of interdependencies (FEW Nexus). Using this Nexus concept as a lens, we investigated the environmental and social impacts of the Panama Canal Expansion. We mapped the relationships between water security, biodiversity, environmental awareness, sustainable agriculture, deforestation, economy, urbanization, and waste management as well as the connections between these issues, both directly and tangentially, to the broader FEW Nexus. This framework gives rise to the potential for future research.
Links: Final Report

Executive Summary


The Panama Canal Expansion Project, set to be completed in 2016, will effectively double the Canal’s shipping capacity. In a national referendum on October 22, 2006, nearly 77% of Panamanian citizens voted to approve the expansion of the Canal. As one of Panama’s primary economic engines, the expanded Canal will bring increased revenue from tariffs, since it will allow more, and larger, shipping vessels that the Canal could not previously accommodate. Though the Panama Canal Expansion Project undoubtedly has significant economic benefits, the social and ecological effects in the region remain unclear. We examined the environmental and social impacts of the Expansion using a model known as the Food, Energy, and Water (FEW) Nexus. The FEW Nexus, or simply Nexus, is a humancentered synthesis of the interdependencies between food, energy, and water. The Nexus does not specify a method or mechanism, but rather it provides a model of understanding, a way of thinking about the relationships between food, energy, and water and their impacts on human lives. We have worked to further understand this concept, providing a framework for the continuation of Nexus analysis in Panama and elsewhere.

Literature Review

The FEW Nexus provides an approach to the linkages between food, energy, and water that regards these concepts in a manner “integrated and addressed in tandem,” so one might consider the Nexus a natural synthesis of those individual linkages. We have therefore considered sources which reference the Nexus directly as well as those which provide information regarding the individual components of the Nexus, as these components of interdependence among food, energy, and water cannot be separated from the Nexus concept as a whole. Our review also includes information about the cultural, historic, geographic, and economic contexts of the Canal Expansion, as different contexts will reflect the Nexus model in different ways.


The goal of this project was to develop a framework describing the Food, Energy, and Water Nexus relationships in the context of the Panama Canal Expansion Project that additionally provides a basis for future Nexus research. In order to accomplish this goal, we identified the following four objectives: 1) Acquire contacts through email and interviews and conduct additional background research; 2) Conduct interviews to gather information related to topics surrounding Food, Energy, and Water; 3) Analyze our findings and identify stakeholders; and 4) Build a framework describing our FEW Nexus research in Panama.


Water Security

Panama faces issues concerning the amount, quality, and availability of drinkable water. In the past, Panamanians did not pay for water and therefore did not manage their use at all. This mindset has continued and contributes to Panama being the number one consumer of water per person in all of Central America. Panama’s growth is only loosely planned, and therefore the aqueduct system continuously needs to be updated and expanded. Many of the pipes are old and leaking. Much of Panama’s potable water comes from the Canal Watershed, specifically Lake Alajuela. Though Panama has enacted regulations to protect the Watershed, the regulations in place do not carry strong enough penalties to deter people from contaminating the water. Even with more strict regulations, there is going to be a need for more water due to the Canal Expansion and the growing population.

Environmental Awareness and Education

For decades, activists around the world have struggled with the problem of raising awareness for environmental issues. In Panama, we spoke with many individuals representing a wide variety of interests; members of the Peace Corps and scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute raised concerns about the level of public knowledge of environmental issues and discussed various efforts to increase public awareness of environmental topics that affect the area. However, there may be some factors that inhibit the dissemination of this information. Experiencing the benefits of the environment as a child is a key component to developing a sense of environmental awareness. If Panama continues to urbanize at the current rate, a smaller portion of the population will have access to the early formative influences that aid in the development of that awareness, and it is possible that it will become more and more difficult to develop a sense of environmental awareness in the city context.


The benefits of biodiversity consist of three major components: an aesthetic beauty, a basis for pharmaceutical research, and a mechanism for carbon sequestration. Panama, with its high biodiversity, has many benefits such as attracting tourists which funnels billions of dollars into the Treasury’s coffers each year. In addition to economic benefits arising from tourism, a high biodiversity also represents fertile ground for research into the applications of the biological structures found in the plant and animal species. Biodiversity also plays a key role in carbon sequestration, capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Deforestation threatens the biodiverse landscape, as biodiverse ecosystems on land exist primarily in heavily forested areas. In the oceans, the biodiversity resides heavily within the coral reefs, which may be threatened by increased traffic through the Caribbean Sea. Sustainable alternatives to agricultural production methods should be considered in order to conserve the biodiversity of the Panamanian isthmus.

Sustainable Agriculture

Agriculture in Panama, at this moment in time, is simply not sustainable. Forests are being cut down for pastures, and these forests are eventually left barren after farmers move on to a new parcel of land. However, conserving the forests is not the solution to deforestation due to agriculture as it moves land off-limits does not help give jobs to workers in the rural areas of Panama. In order for agriculture to be sustainable, the methods employed need to move towards more sustainable processes. In Panama, there has been a long history of destructive farming techniques such as slash-and-burn. With new awareness programs arriving, ecologically conscious farming is on the rise. Even though our research and interviews have not pointed to any farmlands located directly in the Canal Watershed that will be affected by the construction and eventual operations associated with the Expansion, there is the social issue of workers are leaving agriculture to work in the city and there is now a deficit in farmhands.


Deforestation is an issue that has only risen further as the Panama Canal Expansion efforts progress. In order for the ACP to operate the necessary tasks for the Expansion, an area of land needed to be deforested. It is important that the forest around the Canal remains to reduce runoff and help filter the water. In many cases, regulations regarding the protection of national parks may be insufficiently enforced. Without proper enforcement, there is no preservation. Although preserving the national parks are important, it is also important to remember the need for farmland to feed the population and bring a in a profit. The consideration of the economic benefit of deforestation must be weighed against the detrimental effects of removing trees from the area, whether to sell the wood or make space for pasture, farms, or city expansion.


Panama, like many countries worldwide, and particularly in Latin America, has a very uneven wealth distribution. This issue is apparent within the two major cities of Panama City and Colón. Areas such as the Free Zone in Colón and much of Panama City have flourished, while other parts of the cities have fallen to ruin. It is difficult to trace money from revenues to expenses because governments generally appropriate all expense from the combined sum of all revenues. The Canal currently brings in 1/12 of the annual revenue for the country, and the Expansion Project has the potential to increase that income even further.


Rapid urbanization in Panama has contributed to many issues with waste management and agriculture. With the expansion of the city, areas in the past that did not have issues with flooding now flood regularly due to poor drainage in the surrounding areas. The waste management system is expanding with the city but in some areas the infrastructure is minimal and waste is discharged into the rivers. Many of the immigrants into the city are younger members of rural communities who no longer wanted to work on their family farms and were attracted to the city by higher wages. Agriculture suffers from the youth leaving because there are no longer enough people to work the land and areas are now abandoned.

Waste Management

The main cause of waste issues in Panama is due to the urbanization of the city. Until recently, 100% of the waste in Panama City was discharged into the bay without any treatment. In 2010, a wastewater treatment plant was built in Tocumen for the city of Panama. At the moment it is serving only 30% of the city. However, due to inefficient water use, the plant reached water capacity in 2013 and is operating at reduced inefficiency from low waste concentrations. The population does not favor paying for waste services, as removal of human waste has historically been cost-free. The 37th President of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela Rodríguez, and CATHALAC came up with two separate waste management plans, known as 100/0, which would remove all trench latrines in Panama and replace them with conventional or compost toilets.


As we conducted our research, we discovered that environmental and social impacts in Panama extend beyond the boundaries of the Canal Watershed. The Canal is part of the larger interconnected nexus that includes all of Panama. In this way, any work that is done in the Watershed will have a resonating effect across the country. In the event that future research teams from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, or elsewhere, wish to continue forward with the study of topics from this paper, we have enumerated some areas we feel have great potential to be expanded upon with more in-depth research.