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Panama - Climate Change, Water Scarcity, and Migaration 

Resources mentioned in todays episode: New York Times ProPublica article, and Erica's recent publication.

Along with emergency response, Solidarity Engineering performs WASH consulting for our university partners. Solidarity Engineering traveled to Wacuco, Panama in February 2021 on behalf of Villanova University to support an ongoing water system project.These trips were the source of this episode.

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Erica Bower

Linked in: Erica Bower, Twitter: @EricaRBower

Erica Bower is a climate change and human mobility specialist. She has years of experience working as a researcher, consultant, and policy specialist for organizations such as the Mary Robinson Foundation, Oxfam, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She holds bachelor degrees from Columbia University in sustainable development and human rights, a masters degree in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from the University of Oxford and is currently pursuing her PhD in Environment and Resources at Stanford University,

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Father Walter Kasuboski

See his website here.

Father Walter "Wally" Kasuboski is a Capuchin priest that has been living and working on water systems in Wacuco, Panama for 33 years. His work brings clean drinking water to over 8,000 people daily. He also fundraised to buy and protect the watershed that feeds the local water system.

Wacucu, Panama

Photos by: Christa Cook

Instagrams: @christa.cook93

Audio Transcript

Volkan Bozkir: If I may be candid: it is a moral failure that we live in a world with such high levels of technical innovation and success, but we continue to allow billions of people to exist without clean drinking water or the basic tools to wash their hands. 


And make no mistake, this is a global failure that has far-reaching implications for all of us.


Water is integral to sustainable development, but we are well behind on the goals and targets that we have set ourselves.     

By current estimates:

– Some 2.2 billion people – almost a third of the global population – continue to lack access to safely managed drinking water;

– 4.2 billion people – more than half of the planet’s population – live without safely managed sanitation;

– 2 billion people don’t have a decent toilet of their own;

– and 3 billion lack basic handwashing facilities – even in the midst of a global pandemic.

For this reason, I call on the international community to provide greater financial and capacity-building support to water and sanitation related activities, particularly through their support to COVID-19 recovery.


Chloe Rastatter: As global temperatures rise and climate change is changing landscapes, water is becoming more and more scarce. This is not only a women’s crisis, a health crisis, and an education crisis as people are required to travel long distances to get clean water, but a humanitarian and displacement crisis as the lack of clean water and climate change increases barriers people have to overcome to stay in their homeland.


As heard in that clip from Volkan Bozker, the President of the United Nations General Assembly, water and sanitation are huge problems faced by a large portion of the world and in February 2021, the UN released a document stating that “Land is under greater pressure and ecosystems that provide water are disappearing. On top of this, climate change is making water more scarce and unpredictable, wreaking havoc and displacing millions of people.”


Welcome to Dignity Displaced a podcast by Solidarity Engineering about humanitarian crises from the perspective of those living them or working them. I’m one of your hosts, Chloe Rastatter and today we are talking about climate change, the water crisis, and how it is all tied into migration. We’ll hear from an expert in the field to give a background on this dynamic issue and then from an aid worker himself who has been living and working with communities in Panama for over 30 years to try to confront their increasing water scarcity,


ACT 1: Entanglement


Chloe Rastatter: The decision to migrate and leave one's home and life behind is often really complex. To learn more about this, we interviewed Erica Bower who is a climate change and human mobility specialist. She has years of experience working as a researcher, consultant, and policy specialist for organizations such as the Mary Robinson Foundation, Oxfam, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She holds bachelor degrees from Columbia University in sustainable development and human rights, a masters degree in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from the University of Oxford and is currently pursuing her PhD in Environment and Resources at Stanford University,


Chloe Rastatter: Hi Erica, and welcome to Dignity Displaced. To start out, why don’t you introduce yourself and your work to our listeners


Erica Bower: Hi everyone my name is Erica Bower and I am an advocate and researcher focused on the intersection of climate change impacts and human mobility- so migration, displacement, planned relocation and I’ve been working in this field since around 2013 wearing a number of different hats including: behind the scenes of the government led policy process the Nansen Initiative for a number of different UN agencies and NGOs and then currently I am pursuing my PhD at Stanford University where I focus specifically on outcomes of community wide relocations in the face of climate change.


Chloe Rastatter: Welcome and we are so happy to have you with us today. So, climate change affects the dynamics of migration in a ton of different ways. From food scarcity, to water scarcity to those big natural disasters. Could you speak to that idea and give a general background for somebody who has never thought about how climate change affects migration and affects our border and how it is such a dynamic relationship?


Erica Bower: Absolutely, so climate change has a relationship with migration patterns in these various ways. But it’s a more complicated story. So clearly humans have been on the move for as long as we have existed on this planet and climate may play a role including the dust bowl in the US when so many people went west, the first humans who crossed the land bridge even to enter North America, some suspect climate change played a role there. 


So people have noticed there is a relationship between climate change and human mobility for a really long time. But it's only really surfaced as a popular issue that people talk about since the 1970s or so. People first used the term “climate refugee” which is a problematic term that we can talk about later. That happened with a report by El-Hinnawi from UN environment. And in those early days in the 70s and 80s people talked about the relationship between climate change and human mobility in one very specific way. A very simplistic causal relationship where massive climate change impact equals massive movement of people. 


Today in 2021 we know that it's a much more complicated story. The relationship between climate and movement is a much more complex picture. 


There's this issue of multi causality. Humans move for a multitude of reasons that are often interlinked. So it's rarely climate change alone or climate change impacts alone that causes someone to flee their homes. It’s the combination of climate change together with economic, social, political, demographic factors and climate can play a direct role in influencing movement but it can also play an indirect role. For example, a prolonged drought and water scarcity can mean that agricultural production in a remote village is just really really challenging one season and when there’s no means of production and people have no income and they have nothing to eat- that’s the economic threshold at which they decide to move. So its problematic to think of “climate migration” or climate induced displacement. Climate is one factor that influences movement, but its rarely the only one. 


There’s as you mentioned, a lot of different impacts of climate change. So there are typically two ways we think about climate impacts: sudden onset and slow onset. Sudden onset impacts are for example storms, floods, fires. We also think about, in addition to those extreme events, some of the more slow, gradual changes that we are seeing around the world for instance: sea level rise or desertification, water scarcity would also fall into this slow onset category. And it is much harder for social scientists to understand the relationship between a climate event and a given movement in these slow onset contexts because there are so many other factors at play and there is no acute moment that you can pinpoint and say “okay this farmer moved because of this particular instance.” It’s more of an ongoing challenge that's harder to monitor.


Chloe Rastatter: I know that is a big problem that researchers are currently facing. It’s almost impossible to pinpoint because migration is so multi factorial. So what is happening both on the research end and policy end to integrate this idea of climate affecting migration when people like numbers and people like diffinitives but this is an area where everything affects each other. For example, water shortages can lead to exacerbated conflict, to food shortages, to a whole bunch of problems people have to overcome. So how is that being approached now?


Erica Bower: First I will talk about the research end and then I will talk about the policy implications. 


In the research world, there is increase focus on this idea of multicausality. In fact, in the migration studies literature, this has been around for many, many years, So when you think about many, many factors you can try to isolate the role of a specific climate event, specifically the sudden onset events, but it’s really, really hard to understand slow onset events. And this is where I think qualitative research methods really are helpful because when you ask a person not just for their primary reason for movement but for the whole back story and context that’s when you see all of the layers of complexity. When someone describes how there was this long-lasting drought and then that lead to their decision to move to the urban center to see if there was work as a maid and then when that fell through, that movement was sort of the initial internal movement that lead to the decision to cross the border in a later stage it’s a much more complicated story that qualitative research methods can illuminate that complexity. There is certainly a lot of econometrics and quantitative approaches to studying these relationships as well. So in conclusion, the research community knows that climate change is an important factor, but how important and under what contexts there's a lot of variability.


To your second point about how multicausality is addressed in the policy sphere, in the last few years we’ve seen a large number of developments at the international level. So for example, the Global Compact on Migration on Safe, Orderly, and Regular migration, the GCM, recognizes that climate change is an important factor influencing movement as well as economic, social, political, cultural factors, and in fact the GCM explicitly calls on governments to address the role of climate change. In addition, the Global Compact on Refugees also recognizes climate as a root cause of human movements. The biggest development in this space is a state led process called the Nansen Initiative which was initiated in 2015 by the governments of Switzerland and Norway and it really created an institutional and conceptual home for the issue of cross-border climate movements. So in 2015 after a series of regional consultations 109 governments endorsed this protection agenda which outlines not only the measures that countries can take to protect people once they’ve crossed borders because of climate change or in the context of disasters, but also what countries can do to prevent these movements to begin with and to help people stay at home because people don’t want to move unless they’re really forced to. So anyway, the Nansen Initiative- another really important policy development in this space.


Chloe Rastatter: Is there a specific case study or story that you think really speaks to this complex relationship?


Erica Bower: The Prorepublica article in the New York Times from a few months ago is one really compelling example that highlights how complicated migration decisions are and how climate change impacts not only the place of origin, where people are deciding to move, but also peoples journeys themselves. I think it is really important, you know you hear these statistics from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center- 30 million people have been displaced by weather hazards in the year 2020 alone, or you hear the World Bank Statistics and I think it’s 10.6 million people are estimated to be “climate migrants” by the year 2050 in Latin America alone. You hear these numbers and these statistics, but behind those figures are really intensely human stories and the Prorepublica article does a really compelling job at highlighting what those experiences are like.


Chloe Rastatter: Do you see the way that governments are running now and the UN shifting away from this kind of postwar binary of people are either refugees and fleeing political conflict or they’re economic and they’re migrants and they’re by choice. Is the general discourse in these big organizations that influence a lot of policy, influence public opinion, is it shifting and if it is how so?


Erica Bower: So I worked for almost two years with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on this issue of climate change displacement and the fact that my role existed, the fact that my agency is hiring people to work on this climate dimension of internal displacement but also cross-border movements is an indication that the conversation is shifting. That mindset of forced political refugee and voluntary migrant still exists in certain circles, but as time proceeds I think people in these agencies as well as the mandates of these agencies themselves are evolving with the times and we’re seeing that there are many, many, many, many reasons why people move and that typical binary is antiquated and needs to change. 


In terms of specific examples, I think it is worth noting that the 1951 Refugee Convention has a very narrow definition of who is a refugee. It is someone who is fleeing because of persecution across an international border related to their policial, their membership in a specific social group, their religious opinion, one of 5 Nexus Crowns and typically that doesn’t include climate change or disaster related drivers. However, recently the United Nations Refugee agency has issued legal considerations papers about circumstances where there is conflict and violence and a disaster or a climate change impact overlapping geographically or sequentially in time. So there are circumstances where there’s multicausality and in those moments actually people may be able to pursue or seek refugee status. For example, Somalis fleeing the Al-Shebab insurgency and also prolonged famine and food insecurity related to a drought were able to seek refugee status in Debaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. So there are moments where the refugee convention definition may apply even to people who are fleeing related to climate impacts.


Chloe Rastatter: My last question is based on solutions and obviously this is a really new and up and coming field or research and it’s also changing all the time, I can only imagine based how much more information we are learning about climate change in general, so what are you potential solutions that are being talked about for this huge problem of climate change affecting and increasing migration?


Erica Bower: So I think there are many different layers of solutions. To start, and maybe this is a point I should have made earlier, the vast majority of people who are leaving their homes in these multicausal climate contexts do not cross borders- they are internal displaced persons IDPs and I think a lot of solutions that exist include helping people cope with climate hazards, to cope with disasters, emergency response and be able to return to their homes without having to cross a border. So strengthening national governance of IDP protection, creating national laws and mechanisms to help people evacuate, to help people maintain dignity when they’re in evacuation centers and then find solutions to return home after a hazard is incredibly important. A lot of countries have IDP policies, but sometimes they’re more focused on conflict; they do not yet include disaster and climate change.


Another really important solution space is climate change adaptation- helping people stay at home so they don’t even need to leave to begin with. This could be building higher sea walls, this could be helping put houses on slits, using more resilient building materials. My work now at Stanford is really focused on this idea of managed retreat. When we know that sea level rise and floods are coming how do we actually move people out of harms way in a proactive manner so it’s not forced displacement. It’s more of a voluntary community lead relocation and we’re seeing communities in Panama, in Louisiana, in Alaska, in Fiji initiate these relocation processes. So thinking about what community lead and human rights based relocation looks like to prevent forced displacement is one really important solution. 


Finally, zooming out to the international level, there are some circumstances where people do cross borders and we need governments to recognize the role that climate change plays in driving these movements and think about a sweet of policy and legal solutions to protect people’s rights. This includes temporary protection measures like humanitarian visas, so for example after the Haitian earthquake, Haitians were allowed to enter Brazil using these humanitarian visas and stay for a certain amount of time. They weren’t refugees, but they had a visa status. This also might be thinking about regional conventions for refugee protections. So the Cartagena Declaration in the Americas and the OAU declaration in Africa include a broader conception of who is a refugee not just those convention grounds I mentioned earlier, but also people who are fleeing events seriously disturbing the public order so I think we could think more critically about whether and under what circumstances climate change and disasters consistentes an event seriously disturbing the public order


Chloe Rastatter: So we have linked a publication you co-authored in March of 2021 on our website, but outside of that, how do people follow your work or get in touch? 


Erica Bower: Fantastic if you can follow me on Twitter, my handle is @EricaRBower, follow me on Linkedin I guess. Reach out to me by email if you’d like to chat. Thanks so much for the opportunity to connect and really think there’s such an important need for minds to be thinking about this intersection between climate change and human mobility from all different disciplines. We really need all hands on deck.  

Act two: for generations to come 


Chloe Rastatter: On a global level, the disappearance of water sources is an increasing threat. The UN now estimates that 700 million people worldwide could be displaced by intense water scarcity by 2030. 


In this act, we will zoom in on how a network of communities in rural Panama are directly confronting this threat in order to establish water systems that will sustain them now and for future generations. 


Panama has the highest forest cover of any country in Central America, but rapid deforestation has resulted in 414,000 hectares of jungle being lost between 2001 and 2019. This has caused significant damage to their watershed and it is expected that water scarcity will reach dangerously high levels- largely due to climate change, industry, and population growth among other factors.


To see one way the increasing threat of water scarcity is being confronted, we talked to Father Wally, a Capuchin Franciscan priest who for the past 33 years has been living in Wacucu, Panama, a very small village near Torti, Panama. He has spent this time working with a collaboration of 13 communities to protect the watershed and increase household access to water. He and the community have successfully established and maintained over 100km of water systems which currently provide 15,000 people access to clean water. In addition to water systems, he has worked with churches to raise money to buy tens of thousands of acres of the watershed to protect it.


He now focuses on working with the communities and government to get the watersheds titled, so the communities can control and protect their watersheds and thus their only source of water for generations to come. 


Father Wally: Water is the principal of life as we all know. Most people don't realize the importance of preserving water sources. When I got here the infrastructure was collapsed, most people did not have water or water systems every year it was getting drier and drier. And the water became and is still a major issue and so I dedicated a lot of my time and energy to organizing people and looking for funds to help build water systems.


Out here was a lot of deforestation around the water sources and so the water systems would dry up or when the rainy season comes it would fill us with mud and become non-operable. 


Seeing the deforestation going on I was concerned about the water systems so we built a big dam on one of our watersheds to store up water for during the dry seasons where it can for extend for up to 6 months and does not rain a drop. And that really puts a lot of pressure on everyone and especially when theres no water to found except for in dirty lakes where the cows walk into and people go into these lakes to get water for drinking. It was kind of a health crisis because of the lack of clean water. So the issues became more and more urgent to try to get enough protection of the watershed that existed because here in Panama the problem is wells dont work because Panama was under water many millions of years ago and when it came up from the ocean the water was trapped between the two major mountain ranges San Van and the other big mountain range as so all the wells- the water comes out salty. So we have to rely on only the watershed and when the rain falls in the mountains it gets piped down to the different communities to avoid the salty water. 


And it’s been a real challenge, because first you have to educate the people. A lot of people from interior panama migrated to this area and they just cut down jungle to raise cattle, they put in a special grass that grows. So the problem become what do you want? cattle of water? Everyone needs water. 

We ended up raising money to try to buy the watersheds and protect them. If that can be protected against incursions by animals or use of chemicals then you’re at least one step ahead of the bad health effects that contaminated water can cause on people's health.


When I first came here during the rainy season you could drink out of most of the creaks that built up with water from the rainfall. But now that's all gone because of cattle, producing the farm for the cattle and the sprain of the rice and the chemicals in the creaks now. You can’t drink out of that anymore because you get sick really quick. 


Now we have 1000s of acres of watershed protected so nobody lives within these sheds to contaminate the water with cows and pigs and chemicals. And that's been a real blessing for the health of the people, but again it has been a challenge to try to visualize the future so that we have enough water to go around to share with all the people who need the water.  


Christa Cook: So when you’re designing a water system how do you ensure water equity?


Father Wally: Everyone has a water meter and they pay for what they use and the community sets the price for water. We have community meetings and they say “well I think this is a fair price and I show them what it costs for maintenance and personnel and we have to meet these costs. They say “okay that sounds good” and they agree to a certain price for a cubic meter of water which is 256 gallons of water for 50 cents or a dollar or whatever because that has to cover the cost of maintenance. And a large water system obviously has more maintenance costs than a small little community with one watershed. When you are talking about 13 communities fed with one single water source, its a little bit more complicated.


We call everyone into a meeting every 6 months to discuss all the problems and accountability, where the money comes where it goes. We renew water committees every two years, we renew the people who are in charge of their local community and we evaluate the problems and the challenges of the water system.


To organize 13 communities, to get everyone together is too much- how do you get 7,000 people together?


It’s on different levels of management. Local communities elect their representatives (president, secretary, treasurer). The treasurer is the one who collects the bills from that community and they keep 10% of what they charge and pay some of the expense of the local community and maintancce of the water system. Every community has a committee. 


The presidents from every local community make up the central committee. The central committee makes the hard decisions that have to be made to make sure the system is sustainable. 90% of what the local community charges gets turned over to the central committee. The central committee pays salaries of the operators and some of the cost of the equipment that is needed. What is left over comes to the president of the central committee which is myself. So I have to buy all the PVC pipe, all of the water meters, and all the other equipment that is needed to keep the water system going. I turn in that bill publically to the people at the biannual meetings so they understand that is the cost to keep the water system going.


The big challenge now is trying to get the government to allow the community to get titled to the land so they own the watershed and protect the watershed. Right now we have to pay the government a certain amount of money every year to protect the watershed. I mean we are working on that, on trying to get that changed. They should be paying us to protect the watershed, but that is not the case now.  That is a big legal problem, a challenge for us and the community. 


Chloe Rastatter: Thanks for listening to Dignity Displaced a podcast by Solidarity Engineering. Solidarity is a women founded, women lead humanitarian organization that works primarily with displaced people or communities affected by climate change. To learn more about our work or donate to the podcast please visit and you’re looking for more information about climate change and migration or the guests we had today, head to the podcast page on our website. 


As always, content on this podcast was recorded on the ground at our projects, which wouldn’t be possible without support from all of you!


Special thanks to: Erica Bower, Father Wally, Jordan Ermillo and Villanova University, Bernard Amadei, Mary Mangeeri, Christa Cook, Erin Hughes and all those working on the ground with us: Jen and Hannah, Gaby, Bertha, Augusto, Jean Carlos, Franco, Wes, Tucker/Blake/GRM team, Pastor Hector, Father Francisco, Lupe, and countless others.


Lastly, thank you to all of our listeners. To keep up with the podcast please subscribe to wherever you get your podcasts and if you have any questions, thoughts, or contributions, reach out to us on our website! We’d love to hear from you.

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