Investing in IWRM actions in Panama 



Panama has abundant water resources but is increasingly threatened by the impacts of climate change. With challenges on the horizon, the country’s Ministry of Environment (MiAMBIENTE) saw a serious need to speed up action for better water management. This culminated in the creation of Panama’s Action Plan for IWRM 2022-2026. The plan is a major step forward in water decision-making, with 35 key actions planned, prioritized and costed, with a total budget of USD 14 million. The government has already committed USD 3.36 million for the implementation of the plan.

The preparation of the plan was led by MiAMBIENTE with support provided by GWP through the SDG 6 IWRM Support Programme. The story of GWP and Panama shows how trust-based relationships can lead to accelerated change over time; how long-term engagement can lead to behavior change; and how collecting data together can close gaps between policy and practice.  

The Context

In terms of freshwater per capita, Panama is one of the most water-rich countries on earth. Despite this, Panama’s water situation is defined by increasing uncertainty and variability. Droughts over the last decade in the Arco Seco region have been the worst in a century, leading to reduced agricultural production and prompting Panama to import staple foods. Reduced water availability also has a direct impact on the Panama Canal business, with 6% of global shipping makings use of this route. Changing rain patterns have altered water availability and changed the timing of growing seasons, and higher temperatures have increased pests and plant disease. At the same time, storms are increasing in frequency (notably Hurricane Eta in 2020). 

In this context, Panama’s government recognises that water security is an increasingly urgent priority. But to make real change, decision-making and monitoring mechanisms around water need improvement. In 2017, the country’s self-assessed score for SDG 6.5.1 on the status of integrated water resources management (IWRM) implementation was 37 points out of 100. In 2020, the score dropped to 33. With the understanding that the country was not advancing quickly enough, the government requested GWP’s support for the preparation of an Action Plan to accelerate IWRM implementation in the country. 

The process  

IWRM data as a springboard 

GWP supported Panama in collecting information for SDG 6.5.1 in 2020. This was more than a simple measurement exercise: the data was produced through multistakeholder consultations with experts and practitioners representing dozens of organisations. This laid crucial groundwork for action in two ways. First, it brought different actors - including government ministries – together to discuss water challenges and how to address them. Second, the data itself showed key areas where decision-making around water needed to be significantly strengthened. In short, collecting IWRM-related data started conversations that ultimately led to the development of an Action Plan. 

Planning and financing water with an IWRM approach 

In 2021, the Ministry of Environment (MiAMBIENTE) - with the support of GWP - took steps to turn the learnings from the SDG 6.5.1 information into action. Over three months, they organised three multi-actor workshops to create an Action Plan. Participants representing 43 organisations from the public sector, civil society, academia, international cooperation, and the private sector came to the table to identify and prioritise needs for water management. GWP also conducted interviews with representatives of key institutions in the water sector to inform the plan. A Working Group of twelve organisations was formed to advance the draft, including the Ministries of environment, agriculture, health, as well as the National Water Council of Panama (CONAGUA). This cross-sectoral roundtable was a crucial ingredient for success of the plan, ensuring that all ministries were brought included, and their respective priorities considered. Another key ingredient was the input from Panama’s 44 basin committees, who shared their practical experience of the steps and budget needed for local-level integrated planning.  

The result is Panama’s Action Plan for IWRM 2022-2026. The plan consists of 35 concrete actions for better water management. These actions cover all four dimensions of IWRM, meaning that implementing them will boost Panama’s SDG 6.5.1 scores in these four areas. Most importantly, these actions have been costed: the total budget for the plan is $14m. The government has already committed $3.36m, 24% of the plan. Securing additional funding to cover the gap is one of the actions contained within the plan itself. 

The Action Plan was designed not only to fit the SDGs, but to align with nine other national legal instruments related to IWRM in Panama. This ensures that commitments already made by other instruments, like the National Plan for Water Security 2015-2050 and the Government Strategic Plan (PEG) 2019-2024 are not overwritten, but instead reinforced by the new Action Plan. 

Key ingredients to success: basin-level empowerment  

The process to create the Action Plan was rooted in Panama’s 2002 Basin law and its regulation (Law 44 and Decree 479), which lay down requirements for how civil society and relevant Ministries must be included in planning at basin level. This law has led to a robust series of guidelines for forming basin management committees, as well as sub-basin committees. These committees receive guidance from the government but are empowered to do their own planning and conduct their own consultations. This meant that during Action Planning, empowered basin committees made a number of helpful contributions to the Plan by sharing their own experiences from basin-level management.  

Yarid Guevara, Head of Department of Watershed Management within the Ministry of Environment, oversaw the action planning process. She notes that planning succeeds when it happens not just as a coordination exercise, but to bring to the fore the real-life concerns of civil society.

"The success of why we are so far along is because we have the support of a national law. As a Water Directorate we work in an integrated way with the Department of Water Resources, and also of course with the support of GWP, who is always there to advise us how to do the reporting, how to take certain actions forward.”

- Yarid Guevara, Head of Department of Watershed Management, Ministry of Environment of Panama

GWP’s contribution

During this process, GWP acted as a catalyst, guide, and facilitator. First, through its joint SDG 6 IWRM Support Programme with UNEP-DHI, UNDP Cap-Net under the guidance of UNEP (as custodian agency for SDG 6.5.1). GWP initiated and provided guidance for the data collection workshops in 2020, including inviting a diverse group of participants. After seeing the demand for action that these workshops created, GWP funded and helped coordinate the process to create the Action Plan in 2021. This meant helping to design and facilitate meetings, proposing step-by-step working methodologies, encouraging participation from a diverse set of actors, and ensuring follow-up from the Working Group. When the Action Plan was complete, GWP stepped in to help implement it, providing seed funding in 2022 to initiate the first actions, including a pilot initiative to manage the Paritas River in coordination with its basin committee. Throughout, GWP acted as the glue to keep people together and to move the process along step by step. 

GWP’s work has a major multiplier effect:  the investment of approximately EUR 40,000 in process facilitation and pilot activities over three years has strongly contributed to the commitment of $3.36 million from the national budget of Panama for IWRM-related actions. Using such small catalytic resources to deliver large-scale results is part of GWP’s delivery model. 

Global meets local 

The SDGs depend on connecting the global to the local: we set global ambitions but can only take them forward locally. This is where GWP’s unique architecture comes in. To guide the Action Plan, experts from the Panama Water Partnership connected with experts from the GWP Secretariats in Honduras and in Sweden respectively, who in turn linked to UNEP experts in Denmark and Nairobi. This cluster of people worked together to facilitate the design of a plan that is built specifically for Panama, but consistent with global definitions of IWRM. 

A history of cooperation 

GWP’s recent work in Panama is made possible by a long history of collaboration with the government of Panama as well as other water stakeholders. GWP Panama was formed in 2007, and GWP was instrumental in the creation of Panama’s first National IWRM Plan in 2011 when it developed the design workshops for the planning process, and then provided technical support to put the plan into practice. 

GWP’s help is not limited to IWRM planning however, with its work on water in Panama taking many other forms. Recent examples (2018-2022) include workshops to share technical water knowledge through the online IWRM Action Hub; regional exchanges to help governments access climate finance and advance in transboundary water issues; trainings on gender mainstreaming; work on a pilot project for a wind-powered water pump; and support to the Panama chapter of the Central America Water Youth Network. This keeps GWP engaged with different types of actors and topics, all of which keep the network alive and strengthen links between water actors in Panama. 

From planning to action 

Now that the Action Plan is in place, Panama has selected priority strategic actions to finance and implement it. With the facilitation of GWP, action is already underway in the Parita river basin, a river in the Arco Seco surrounded by dry and degraded land. Workshops began in September 2022 to advance the following areas: 

  • Basin-level planning: a diverse group of organisations met to identify project ideas to advance basin management for the Rio Parita. 
  • Investments: Together with action planning, the team working in the Parita will build a financing mechanism. They are already engaging with private companies and other organizations in the basin to outline ways they can contribute as responsible water users - not just donors. 
  • Groundwater study: given the serious need for better data on groundwater, a groundwater study in the basin is in initial stages.  

Based on the Parita pilot initiative, the experience will be replicated on more of Panama’s rivers using lessons learned from this pilot. 

Because of the cross-cutting nature of water, IWRM improvements spark broader change. The SDG data collection and resulting Action Plan are part of a long trend of building political energy for better water management in Panama. This political will led to other water-related achievements in 2021, including:

  • The National Assembly approved the creation of the Meteorological and Hydrological Institute of Panama (IMHPA) in April 2021 
  • The Ministry of Environment approved a national study on aquifers 
  • Environmental management instruments including Environmental Impact Assessments and Environmental Audits (AA) were updated to take IWRM into account 
  • Initial design of a water footprinting mechanism for businesses and municipalities is underway 
  • What’s next? 

    • Completing and implementing a resource mobilisation plan: actions to raise resources to cover the remaining budget of the IWRM Action Plan have been outlined and will be taken forward. This will include targeting not just fiscal budgets, but also private sector actors that are significant water users on specific rivers. 
    • Scaling basin-level planning from the Parita river: once the pilot is complete, basin planning exercises will extend to new basins, with the continued support of GWP Panama. 
    • Advance on the establishment of agreements for transboundary basin management 

    What is a GWP impact story?

    GWP’s activities influence water governance for a water secure world. We measure our impact in terms of enhanced quality of life for populations and increased water-related investment. Our impact stories are our vehicle to tell what is behind those numbers.