Panama, in energy crisis, closes schools, universities

PANAMA CITY (AFP) - Up against the wall in a drought-sparked energy crisis, Panama said on Tuesday it would shut high schools and universities for three days, in a desperate bid to reduce power usage.

The Central American nation of 3.6 million has a booming economy - Latin America's fastest-growing at 10 percent a year.

But it depends heavily on power from hydroelectric plants fueled by water and the rainy season is a month late, part of an increasingly common pattern scientists and forecasters have linked to climate change.

Government officials have been warning that the country, which normally has water to spare, is now perilously close to having to ration power, and are trying anything and everything to avoid that.

"We are hoping that with these steps we will be in a place where we reduce demand" significantly, presidential spokesman Roberto Henriquez said.

"If we do this for these (three) days, I think we will be able to avoid rationing, which Mr Henriquez warned could "stop, or seriously affect the nation's economy."

On Monday, President Ricardo Martinelli said: "I ask all Panamanians to save energy, because (lack of) rains is seriously undermining our power grid and we do not want to end up rationing."

Power supplies are only part of the fallout from the drought.

Emergencies have been declared in several provinces as hundreds of cows have died in the parched conditions, and farmers have had to significantly delay planting.

Just under a third of the country's power is generated at hydroelectric plants. More than half is from plants burning conventional fuels - like diesel and coal. Only four percent is from renewable sources.

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