San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Water Reform Proposal Sends Sparks Flying

Water is a hot topic these days, and the text of a new water bill is doing little to cool things down.

Though the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) is still editing and revising it, the text of the new Ley del Recurso Hídrico (Water Resource Law) has been making its way through environmentalist circles and raising concerns.

The new law, critics say, emphasizes water as a commodity, paving the way for businesses to exploit the resource for profit, while putting citizen’s rights to water at bay. José Miguel Zeledón, director of MINAE’s Water Department, argues, however, that the bill is still a work in progress, and that it does nothing to reduce citizens’ rights or make water commerce easier.

“Access to water continues to be public. Nothing has been changed in the potable water sector,” Zeledón said.

One thing everyone appears to agree on is that Costa Rica needs a new water law, as the current one dates back to 1942.

Three different water bills surfaced in the Legislative Assembly in 2001 that were combined into one bill under former President Abel Pacheco (2002-2006), and shopped around extensively to universities, environmentalists, researchers, agriculture representatives, industry groups and others.

“It’s unlikely that there is another bill in the history of Costa Rica that was as widely consulted and that reached such high levels of consensus,” said José María Villalta, a lawyer, environmentalist and adviser at the Legislative Assembly.

That bill was presented to the Legislative Assembly in 2005 and sent to the environment commission, where it was reviewed, tweaked and passed onto the legislative floor for a vote.

However, faced with fierce opposition from the Libertarian Movement Party, the bill’s progress ended there.

When President Oscar Arias took power in 2006, he informed the assembly that a new water bill was a priority for his administration and that it would be presenting an “improved” text.

Work on the 2005 bill stopped, and Arias’ administration began editing the text and consulting again. Two years went by and in May, MINAE sent a draft to stakeholder organizations as well as the Legislative Assembly’s environment commission for review.

“We have done a preliminary analysis, and we believe that this text is not suitable for Costa Rica’s interests,” said Grettel Corrales, a legislator on the environment commission for the opposition Political Action Party (PAC).

Chief among the critics’ concerns, and what has caused the most alarm in recent weeks, is a change at the beginning of the bill.

In the 2005 text, Article 2 Paragraph b states: “Access to water in adequate conditions of quantity and quality is a human right, indispensable to satisfy the human being’s basic necessities.”

The Arias’ administration’s version replaces that with: “Water is a resource with multiple uses, with a priority for human consumption.”

“They simply took out (the access to water as a human right), and as we understand it wasn’t a mistake but is something they are doing according to the free trade agreement,” Corrales said.

According to Corrales, the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which Costa Rican voters approved in a national referendum last October, prohibits any country from putting up obstacles to the trade of natural resources. Defining access to water as a human right, Corrales said, would interfere with that trade and could expose Costa Rica to international lawsuits in the future.

Zeledón denied the accusation outright. “Fundamental rights are defined in the country’s constitution,” Zeledón said. “It would be an error of political process to define a fundamental right in a law.”

However, in the face of the rising controversy, including declarations from the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) calling for the text to be put back in, Zeldón said the section of the bill will be changed back to its original wording.

Zeledón denied the bill was rewritten because of CAFTA.

“We did not ever consult CAFTA to see if we were in compliance with it,” he said. “The access to water for bottling and commerce (allowed by law) today is maintained in the bill. It does not promote, create norms or regulate this activity in any new way.”

Zeledón emphasized that the text is still being edited according to input MINAE is receiving from an inter-institutional panel with representatives from environmental organizations, universities, business chambers and other sectors.

However, the main environmental organizations involved with MINAE’s drafting of the bill – the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center (CEDARENA) and the Foundation for Urban Development (FUDEU), among others – have been critical of the current text and have launched a signature-gathering initiative in the hope of submitting their own version, much closer to the 2005 one, as a citizen-initiative bill to the Legislative Assembly.

Zeledón said he expects MINAE will submit the final text of its bill to the assembly by the end of the month.¦


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