From Wed Feb 7 12:49:21 2001
Date: Tue, 6 Feb 2001 22:19:17 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <>
Subject: ENVIRO: Threat of a 'Faecal Swamp' Haunts Panamanian Highway Project
Article: 114658
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Threat of a ‘Faecal Swamp’ Haunts Panamanian Highway

By Danielle Knight, IPS, 17 January 2001

WASHINGTON, Jan 17 (IPS)—Touted as a reliable transportation link to the airport in Panama City and as a solution to traffic congestion, a toll road project funded by the International Finance Corporation here does not have the support of all Panamanians.

Although the 19.5 kilometre Corredor Sur highway has been completed recently, it remains under fire by local critics who fear that a related development project will block the water current and turn the already polluted Bay of Panama into a faecal mud swamp.

An environmental watchdog group in Panama insists that the International Finance Corporation, the private lending arm of the World Bank, be held responsible for granting a 70 million dollar loan to a Mexican company for constructing the road.

Corredor Sur was constructed by the Civil Engineer Associates Panama (ICA) over land as well as part of the Panama Bay near the coastline.

In addition to the highway, the concession agreement between the government and ICA involves the development of 35 hectares of landfill into luxury real estate near where the highway is supported by a rock embankment off the coast.

Known as Punta Pacifica, the unfinished development project involves filling in portions of the Panama Bay in order to create islands upon which posh real estate is scheduled to be built.

A local advocacy organisation, the Foundation for the Development of Citizen Liberty, however, warns that the islands will make the bay—which is already severely polluted by the dumping of millions of tons of raw sewage each year—even more contaminated.

Some hydrology experts and Felix Wing Solis, director of the Foundation argue that the Punta Pacifica will obstruct the natural coastal current that currently washes much of the sewage out to sea.

The waste would be trapped by the islands and be deposited next to the coastline, says Wing Solis.

This is likely to cause serious environmental and public health problems, and will make Panama City increasingly unliveable, he says.

Hydrology experts with the California-based Philip Williams and Associates consulting firm have warned that Punta Pacifica would provoke a massive deposition of bacterial sediments near the coast that would produce an odour of decomposition.

If these bacteria or viruses make contact with humans, all sorts of diseases could appear, says a summary of a presentation made to President Mireya Moscoso in June by Pablo Bereciartua, a hydrology expert with the consulting firm.

The Foundation and other Panamanian organisations are calling on President Moscoso to halt the Punta Pacifica project by renegotiating the agreement between the government and ICA.

Watchdog groups warn that clean-up of the Bay, estimated to cost 200 to 300 million dollars by a study financed by the Inter-American Development Bank, would be impossible if the islands are constructed.

The proposed Panama Bay sanitation plan, which we understand has a high priority for your government, will be rendered ineffective if natural coastal currents are lost forever as a result of the landfill, says a letter by the Foundation to the President.

Previous pressure by Panamanian groups resulted in some changes in how the highway was constructed. A number of bridges and culverts, for example, were added to the rock causeway in order to allow for more exchange of water between the area enclosed by the road and the rest of the Bay of Panama.

Even though the IFC only funded the highway and not Punta Pacifica, Wing Solis says the IFC should also be held accountable for its involvement in the project.

Mark Constantine, a spokesman for the IFC here, says the lending institution has always been well aware of concerns surrounding Corredor Sur and Punta Pacifica.

He says that even though the IFC was only funding the road, it required that the construction company commission environmental assessments of Punta Pacifica. The studies resulted in mitigation measures that Constantine says ensure the projects do not lead to additional serious long-term deterioration of water quality in the bay.

One such mitigation measure was the construction of a pipe that pumps the sewage beyond the road and shoreline so that it will not be trapped by the Punta Pacifica islands.

Extensive monitoring is required on an ongoing basis to determine the level of siltation that occurs and the company is required to deal with the situation if the siltation builds up, he says.

ICA also has an independent auditing unit where local organisations and authorities can register complaints, he adds.

Like other projects the IFC is involved in, the institution's requirements to consult local groups and conduct environmental assessments had a positive impact on the project, says Constantine, citing the changes made to the road that allows some water to circulate.

The IFC's involvement in this project and our consultation requirements and the relative transparency with which this project was undertaken actually helped institutionalise the democratisation process, says Constantine.

Claudia Saladin, a senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law here in Washington, agrees that the IFC requirement of greater public disclosure and public participation in projects that it finances is a positive move. But, she says, that argument alone does not justify the institution's involvement in certain projects.

If you have a bad project and you make it better, is that really sufficient justification for using limited public resources? she says.

Saladin says the controversies surrounding the Corredor Sur and Punta Pacifica projects are symptomatic of a larger problem at the IFC. She says the institution is often called in to help finance only part of a larger project. So the cumulative impacts of the entire project are not assessed when deciding to approve a loan, she argues.

The involvement of the IFC in part of the project then leverages much greater investment for other parts of the overall endeavour, says Saladin. In the case of Corredor Sur, she says the loan for the road made the Punta Pacifica project economically viable.

If you know you are building a road and as a result of the road landfills will be constructed, you have an obligation to look at the broader impacts that those series of actions are going to have on the environment, says Saladin.