San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Water Tribunal Reviews Cases from Region

A panel of experts from around Central America, Cuba, Colombia and Uruguay were in San José this week to review cases brought to the second public audience of the Central American Water Tribunal, an ethical court that reviews cases and gives recommendations to governments and businesses about the ethical management of water.

The court reviewed nine cases from across the isthmus this week, including two cases from Costa Rica, two from El Salvador, two from Guatemala, and one each from Panama, Nicaragua and Honduras.

Verdicts on the cases are expected to be announced today at 5:30 p.m.

The tribunal is only for ethical decision-making and its verdicts are not binding for governments, according to organizers. But, tribunal director Javier Bogantes said, “Ethics are fundamental in the protection of human rights and the rights of the environment.”

HE called the Central American water situation “alarming,” and pointed to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that says 16 million of the 40 million people living in Central America, (35% of its population) do not have access to potable water.

Bogantes told the press that in 2002, at least 1.1 billion people worldwide lacked potable water and 2.4 billion people did not have access to basic sanitary services.

The nine cases reviewed by the tribunal this week include distinct problems with various types of water sources, including seawater, rivers and aquifers. Concerning Costa Rica, the panel will review a complaint brought by the Association of Community Development from the area of Santa Cruz, in the northwestern Guanacaste province, in response to the subterraneous extraction of aquifer water for use by hotels.

“IN a dry zone that already has problems with water, the best development efforts are being directed toward people who don’t live in the zone,” said Wilmer Matarrita, a member of the non-governmental organization FEDEGUA, during a Monday address about the case at Universidad Nacional in Heredia.

“The development in Guanacaste, in our country in general, should continue for the benefit of citizens in the zone,” Matarrita said.

The other Costa Rican case the tribunal will review is related to water pollution from the fumigation of banana plantations in Larga Distancia de Matina, Limón, on the country’s Caribbean slope.

ONE of the most widely discussed cases the court reviewed is that of the transportation of nuclear waste across the Panama Canal, which opponents say puts at risk the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of people in the region.

Twenty years ago, French and English companies began transporting nuclear waste through the 82-kilometer canal to be processed in Japan, and returned via the same route (TT, Nov. 7, 2003).

Raúl Escoffery, of the Panamanian Human Rights Committee, in San José for the tribunal, said the government has yet to conduct studies pertaining to environmental and security risks associated with the process.

He said one simple accident could be devastating if a ship were carrying nuclear waste, and could result in more than 100,000 deaths and a regional disaster.

In the 2003 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 2003, the Panama Canal Authority reported 12 maritime accidents from a total of 13,154 transits (TT, March 12).

Escoffery said even if the government of Panama cannot be dissuaded from allowing transportation of the waste, decrees in Costa Rica or Colombia prohibiting the transportation of nuclear waste through their waters could prove just as effective in stopping its movement through the canal.

“We want to prohibit it in Panama, and take the lead in prohibiting it in Central America and the Caribbean,” Escoffery said.

THE tribunal also reviewed the potential damage to the potable water supply in El Salvador caused by the construction of a massive highway encircling the nation’s capital, San Salvador.

The proposed highway, according to Mauricio Serméno of Salvadorian Ecology United, could be as wide as 100 meters in some places, and could be as long as 100 kilometers. The construction of the canal and the subsequent clearing of more than 600,000 trees could cause irreversible damage to the aquifer in the area, he said.

Serméno said that with a price tag of $1.5 billion, the highway would suck up more than 40% of the nation’s budget.

The other Salvadoran case the ethical panel reviewed is that of a hydroelectric dam project proposed for the Rio Torola, which, if carried out, would require the evacuation of more than 21,000 people, most of whom are agricultural workers, according to the tribunal.

CONCERNING Nicaragua, the panel reviewed the case of the canalization and drainage of the Río Negro (whose waters are shared by Nicaragua and Honduras), in the area of Guasule, on the border with Honduras, which has “drained the waters of this river on the Nicaraguan side, drying up 36 wells and causing droughts,” according to a document released by the tribunal.

Judges also review the Guatemalan case of the proliferation of hydrilla verticilata aquatic plant in LakeIzabal, located in the area by the same name in the northwest portion of the country. The proliferation of the plants, which now cover 70 square kilometers of the lake, allegedly are a consequence of the use of pesticides and the lack of an adequate water-treatment system.

The plants are adversely affecting the area’s ecosystem, according to the tribunal.

THE two cases from Honduras included the extraction of mangroves and contamination of hydrological ecosystems attributed to shrimp companies in the Gulf of Fonseca, on the Pacific coast of the country, as well as the contamination of the River Lara, allegedly by the mining company Minosa in San Andrés de la Union, in Copán, in the country’s northwest region.


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