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Water resource resilience in the face of climate change: La Villa river basin, Panama


Please briefly describe your Water ChangeMaker journey

The initiative carried out by the Centro del Agua del Trópico Húmedo para América Latina y el Caribe [Water Centre for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean – CATHALAC] between 2016 and 2019 in the La Villa river basin is important for Panama given its recognition of the major challenge posed by the anticipated effects of climate change and inhabitants’ vulnerability. That vulnerability exists in a context of growing demand for water resources owing to the gradual degradation of the environment, which is caused by an unsustainable economic system based on highly destructive productive patterns. The question posed by the research was how the government, civil society, academia and the population can help bring about the conditions necessary to confront climate change in the basin, which is considered one of the most important given its socio-economic value, and the most damaged in the country. This problem was addressed via joint management between various institutions and society that, by strengthening planning, funding, administration and information capacities, led to the establishment of a partnership to determine the path to water resilience. Citizens participated in decision-making to bring about balance in the use of water resources, with clear, adequate and flexible regulations to enable adaptation to the process, benefiting some 95,000 individuals in the basin.

Please describe the change that your initiative created and how was it achieved

The project methodology was based on integrated water resources management. Joint management was undertaken by various institutions and society to build water resilience in the municipalities of Chitré and Los Santos. This management model permitted project implementation and the merging of scientific, technical and social aspects. Initially, the project focused on generating the scientific and technical knowledge necessary to support sustainable municipal planning activities to achieve water resilience. To that end, the area’s existing governance framework (the Basin Committee) was harnessed, and focus groups were organised in the municipalities, bringing together representatives from government, academia, civil society, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), young community leaders and women leaders. The participation of the CATHALAC experts was key to achieving the project’s results. Their interactions with actors in both municipalities allowed for the exchange of information and attracted greater interest in seeking solutions to the problems identified there. Through ongoing training on the implementation of planning practices when building water resilience, the project succeeded in reducing the gap and strengthening the link between scientific, technical and social aspects. Participatory models were adopted to involve all stakeholders in the basin. Those models served as a basis for the technical studies undertaken, as well as for the formulation of municipal water security resilience plans.

How did your initiative help build resilience to climate change?

The project’s innovations included the involvement of municipalities, communities and institutions directly and indirectly related to water resources. This allowed for significant changes to water management in the basin after the project’s results were incorporated. Similarly, awareness of water security was improved through the multiple training sessions provided by the project on topics relevant to water resilience, and also thanks to the active participation of the community which generated widespread awareness and brought about an attitudinal change towards the more effective conservation of water resources. At the structural level, the Chitré local authorities created an Environment Department, and the Risk Department began to address the issue of water resilience by strengthening its relevant activities and structures. This was an effective approach as it allowed for processes to be expedited without the need to create new ones, which is a lengthier process that requires greater institutional and budgetary effort.

What water-related decisions did your initiative influence or improve?

The project carried out several multidisciplinary technical studies, resulting in the drafting of Municipal Water Resilience Plans, aiming to generate information, knowledge and capacities to assist local, sectoral and basin authorities in decision-making processes to ensure adequate integrated water resources management. Using the basic data gathered from the studies and from interaction with different local stakeholders of the basin’s water resources during the focus groups, including young leaders, women leaders, the basin committee, municipal authorities and local and central government institutions, an outline of a range of priority adaptation measures to promote the resilience of the basin’s water resources was proposed. These measures represent a road map for the two municipal authorities to follow while generating synergy between them so that they may both implement and monitor its activities, and also so that activities may be replicated by other municipalities in the basin. By focusing on the promotion of the measures contained in these documents, a political advocacy plan was developed to identify a strategy for the adoption, by means of a Municipal Agreement, of the Municipal Water Resilience Plans.

What were some of the challenges faced and how were they overcome?

From the outset of project implementation, potential risks that could create delays or problems among the stakeholders and in the research activities were considered and analysed. The risks with highest impact included: (a) loss of political commitment; (b) changes to the project team and staff; and most importantly, (c) lack of willingness in the community which could affect the smooth running of the project. This critical and forward-looking approach made it possible to adopt the appropriate risk mitigation measures. In order to bring about change, consideration was given to the importance of identifying and linking different national policies on separate sectoral issues, with different scales of intervention, such as policies implemented within a basin or at the local level through municipal management.
These development management processes, particularly those relating to integrated water resources management, are often not coordinated, or entities responsible for the implementation of national and subnational policies fail to coordinate or support multisectoral actions, which would produce more effective and efficient outcomes. These activities’ institutional frameworks are also different, affecting governance to the detriment of the expected benefits for citizens.

In your view: Will the change that was created by your initiative continue?

The project’s mission was to improve the living conditions of the basin’s inhabitants by enhancing knowledge, providing social, economic and health-related solutions and addressing environmental challenges. This was achieved by supporting research and generating solutions for vulnerable people in terms of well-being and health. It also promoted capacity building among future leaders to increase their impact on large-scale solutions. The inclusion of gender issues, such as during the strengthening of youth leadership, is central to the intervention and allows the project to identify a series of qualitative improvements in the results of the actions undertaken. As a result of these actions, a Municipal Agreement was issued to adopt the Municipal Water Resilience Plan for Chitré, making it the groundbreaking district at the national level in terms of formalising an adaptation strategy to guarantee the sustainability of the basin’s water resources.

What did you learn during the initiative or after? And is it possible that others could learn from you?

The project’s design meant that it was successful from the outset thanks to its management model’s efficient and effective merging of scientific, technical and social aspects. Joint management by various institutions and civil society was also successful, strengthening their planning, financing and administrative capacities. Local governance and the participatory approach to supporting municipal water resource resilience were key to the project’s success. Given the project’s outstanding support for the district of Chitré, the authorities have deemed it necessary to recognise CATHALAC publicly for the project’s contribution to a significant improvement in citizens’ quality of life. Furthermore, the institutional open-door policy has been reaffirmed so that the strengthening of cooperation and exchange of technical information may continue.