San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Groups Call for Water for Everyone

AS government representatives from around the world met in New York this week to discuss what they call the international water crisis, Costa Rican organizations  called for increased efforts to ensure every resident here has access to potable water.

It is the first meeting of representatives from the United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development since U.N. member nations pledged at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development to reduce by 50% the number of people in the world without access to potable water or basic sanitation, a goal international organizations claim they failed to meet.

Non-government organizations (NGOs), including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), CARE International, Green Cross International, Oxfam, Tearfund and Wateraid, collaborated to compile a “scorecard report” in which they criticized countries that failed to increase the amount of aid they allocate toward the water problem.

THE organizations claim that in most of the 22 countries surveyed, overall aid for water and sanitation has not increased – in fact, aid for water is declining.

According to statistics published by the WWF, more than 1 billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water, while 2.4 billion people have no access to basic sanitation services.

Those statistics are somewhat reflective of the situation faced by Costa Rica –according to a government request made in February for a $260 million loan from World Bank to improve potable water quality, 1.2 million of the nation’s 4 million inhabitants do not receive potable water. The document said 11% of the nation’s inhabitants do not have piped water.

The lack of potable water for indigenous communities is particularly bad, said Carlos Chaverri, president of the Foundation for the Cultural and Social Development of Ethnic Indigenous Costa Ricans (FUNDEICO).

“We have many problems,” Chaverri said. “Much has been done, but we have many problems.”

For example, Chaverri said that on the indigenous reservation of Quitirrisi, 30 miles west of San José, some 600 families are without regular access to running water.

Residents there said they rarely have water, and when they do, service is sporadic.

“A person without water is nothing,” said Isabel Hernández, a resident of the reservation. “There are many, many families here. We need water.”

BEGINNING in June, the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) will take action to help curtail contamination of Costa Rica’s water sources by imposing a new contamination tax on businesses that release any liquids into rivers or other water supplies, said ministry spokeswoman María Guzmán.

“It’s a new form of environmental control and a new financial tool,” Guzmán told The Tico Times. “Those who contaminate, pay.”

The new fee, created by executive decree last year, will increase substantially for companies who do not treat the water they release into lakes or rivers.

For example, Guzmán said, a beverage manufacturing company would pay $664 a year with a treatment system, and $35,332 without. A farm of 500 pigs with a satisfactory treatment system in place would pay an annual tax of $452, whereas one with no treatment system would pay $10,000, she said.

Guzmán said companies will always have the opportunity to improve their treatment system, so the amount they pay could change during the course of a year.

CONTAMINATION of water sources currently considered potable has previously affected thousands. In April of last year, for example, water apparently contaminated by fuel that had seeped into the water supply serving the metropolitan communities of Tibás, Moravia, and Goicoichea affected more than 50,000 residents.

Experts at that time said Costa Rica’s water supply was in a state of emergency (TT April 25, 2003).

Meanwhile, a project to renew Costa Rica’s archaic water law, which dates back to 1942, remains stalled in a special congressional sub-committee, where a small team of legislators is reviewing the bill of 133 articles, sources from the Legislative Assembly told The Tico Times.

If passed, the new law would provide additional protection to aquifers and river basins – to improve drinking water quality – and would create a new government body called the National Hydrological Authority, which would be responsible for all issues pertaining to water use and quality in the country.

ACCORDING to Costa Rica’s request for a World Bank loan, those issues are numerous. For example, 96% of urban wastewater is discharged into “rivers and receiving bodies without any treatment, generating respective public health risks and water resources contamination problems,” according to the document.

A statement released by Universidad Nacional (UNA) after a summit of water experts at the end of last month was equally critical of the management of hydrological resources in the country.

“In Costa Rica, UNA and other institutions have carried out valuable studies that show the deterioration and contamination of the protected zones of hydrological basins,” the statement said, citing problems such as deforestation and erosion caused by construction as contributing factors to the damage.

WITH a $240 million loan from the World Bank – which has not yet been approved – the government of Costa Rica could “initiate the modernization process of the water and sanitation sector in Costa Rica” and “complete the construction of the sewage collection, conveyance and treatment system of the metropolitan area of San José.”

In its proposal, Costa Rica says the main problems faced by the country’s water and sanitation sector are an “outdated centralized sector model and inadequate sector policy framework, lack of leadership and accountability for development, unsatisfactory service providers and low quality of provided services, a large backlog in sanitation infrastructure, high investment needs, low tariffs and poor cost recovery, and lengthy and inefficient procurement procedures.”

THE new law also would address those issues, according to Claudia Arroyo, an advisor to legislator Quírico Jiménez, who is heading the sub-committee.

The proposed water law was introduced in 2001 and has been in discussion ever since. More than 100 government functionaries, water specialists and NGOs reviewed the original text of the legislative proposal and a revised text was published on Jan. 7 of this year, Guzmán said.

Once the sub-committee approves the bill, she said, it will be sent to the Congressional Environmental Commission, who will decide whether to approve the project.

If it receives approval, it will pass to the floor of the Legislative Assembly for further discussion.


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