Managing Water

Saturday March 22 was World Water Day, a day designated by the United Nations to raise awareness about water-related issues and to contribute to a policy dialog involving key stakeholders. To highlight water issues and controversies in Costa Rica, the Festival in Defense of Water was held on Saturday in the Cultural Plaza of San José.

Due to its geography, Costa Rica enjoys both the Pacific and the Caribbean watersheds and contains more than 900 wetlands with access to 140,000 hectares of fresh water. Thanks to its tropical weather, Costa Rica also enjoys a rainy season for half of the year, producing an average annual precipitation of almost 3,000 millimeters. The total renewable water resource index (TRWR), which measures the long-term average water availability, indicates that Costa Rica has 112.4 km3 of TRWR. The landmass of the United States is 192 times larger than Costa Rica, but its TRWR is only 27 times as large.

One would imagine that with such vast water supply, every Costa Rican would enjoy easy access to water. Sadly, that is far from true. This is due to two main reasons: lack of sensible water management policy and climate change. Both affect short and long-term access to water.

The Costa Rican Institute of Water and Sanitation (AyA, its Spanish acronym), is the central body in charge of water supply and sewage treatments. AyA is in charge of water and sewage nationwide, but it is only really capable of delivering services in urban areas due to the remoteness and inaccessibility of many rural areas. These rural areas often have to form their own Administrative Associations of Communal Aqueduct and Sewage (ASADA, its Spanish acronym), which are generally run by volunteer community organizers and activists. They usually collect a user fee to hire an aqueduct technician. However, the catch is that a community must obtain permission from AyA in order to form an ASADA and AyA must perform technical inspections of ASADAs. But the same remoteness and inaccessibility that caused the formation of the ASADA means that AyA tends to be not interested or capable of making these technical inspection visits. This creates tension between the community and AyA, which often means if AyA decides to inspect an ASADA, the community views it as the enemy.

One example of the tension between people and AyA is the community of Playa Potrero. For years the residents have been fighting against real estate development in the luxury tourism industry because the developers have taken large amounts of water supply from the community. Recent resident complaints of insufficient water delivery have led to a court order for AyA to take over the community ASADA. However, this is not a sensible solution. The community views AyA as the impediment to the proper functioning of their water system because AyA has not fought the real estate developers on behalf of the community. AyA, on the other hand, has no interest in taking over a rural ASADA that they don’t have the ability to manage in the first place and that will incur large costs. After residents protested, the court decision was finally reversed. Unfortunately, the residents are still left with the issue of the real estate development and the subsequent lack of water supply. The poor management of water is likely to take on increasing importance as the Costa Rican tourism increases, and residents are left with an even more depleted supply of water.

While lack of sensible water management policies perpetuates distribution inequality, long-term water supply is also being severely affected by climate change. According to a recent study presented at the Mesoamerican Protected Areas Congress in San José, more than 400 species of plants and animals in Costa Rica are under threat due to the change in rainfall patterns as well as rising seas levels. Last year, the Caribbean precipitation in Costa Rica was 45% less than it was in 2009, a mere four years ago. This had severely affected more than 20,000 residents in the province of Heredia, whose water supply is dependent on the Caribbean rainfalls. These residents had their water shut off for 16 hours a day in March 2013. This year, the situation is predicted to be worse. Meanwhile, the Pacific side experienced the El Niño effect, a weather phenomenon characterized by an unusually warm band of ocean water that creates hotter temperatures and less rainfall.

A number of countries have water management issues and are threatened by a decrease in rainfall amount due to climate change. Most are not lucky enough to have Costa Rica’s ample water supply to begin with. It is estimated that one-quarter of the world’s population currently lives in regions where the speed of exploitation for groundwater is faster than the speed of self-replenishment. This will leave more than 2.3 billion people facing a severe water shortage by 2050. Most of us will live to see 2050, only 36 years from now, but just what will we see?


Image Credit: Shengxiao Yu


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