What seemed like a slam dunk for opponents of the controversial Sardinal aqueduct project in the northwestern province of Guanacaste is now being held up by supporters of the project as proof they are right.
The aqueduct would draw water from an aquifer under an inland village called Sardinal to feed booming construction in the beach towns of Playas del Coco and Ocotal.
Sardinal residents protested last year once they found out about the project, then nearly three quarters finished.
The construction of the $8 million pipeline, now suspended, was being funded and overseen by a group of coastal developers and hotel owners under an agreement to turn the project over to the government once completed in exchange for at least 5,000 water connections.
The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) ruled Jan. 14 that the pipeline project “violates the right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment.”
The court ruling found that the project violated the Constitution because it lacked the “technical certainty of the Sardinal aquifer’s capacity for exploitation” and failed to assure “water availability to satisfy the community’s interests, which are fundamental.”
In addition, the project did not include input from people who live in Sardinal, a violation of their constitutional rights, the court said.
The text of the court’s decision, which was released the day after the ruling was announced, did not explicitly shut down the project, but ordered the government to “adjust its actions … in accordance with what is established in the sentence.”
In a press release issued by the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) and the country’s two water agencies, the government claims that it already has.
The statement insists the government “meets the requirements of the Sala IV” and that the ruling does not suspend any work on the aqueduct.
The aqueduct has, however, been suspended by the municipality of Carrillo since May.“We completely agree with the dispositions in the ruling given that they reflect the uneasiness of the community, the appraisal by the Comptroller General and other aspects,” the government statement said.
The Comptroller General issued a scathing report on the pipeline late last year finding “important” legal violations in the way the project has been carried out and a lack of water studies and environmental permits.
The government statement insisted a special commission set up by Environment Minister Roberto Dobles to look at the conflict has already been carrying out everything the court demanded, including presenting a new water study in November and opening a public information office in Sardinal.
MINAET’s new study – following others presented by the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) that were rejected as incomplete – claimed the Sardinal aquifer has enough water to feed the entire province of Guanacaste, home to 350,000 people.
That study was heavily criticized by the nation’s Ombudswoman, who called the pipeline project illegal. In addition, two officials from the National Groundwater, Irrigation and Drainage Service (SENARA), the government agency in charge of the nation’s aquifers, resigned from Dobles’ special commission in protest, saying MINAET ignored information they presented showing there was much less water in the aquifer.
Alvaro Sagot, an environmental law professor from the Universidad Nacional (UNA), said he believes the court ruling means the government must start over if they want to continue the project.
“That part about citizen participation is very important,” he said. “What it says is they omitted citizen participation in the process of the formulation of the project. It’s not the same just to open an office to receive complaints.”
S agot also insisted that the governmentstill lacks the proper water studies, noting that the court’s ruling came after MINAET presented its new water analysis in November.
Should the government continue with the project without attending to all of thelegal concerns presented by the Comptroller’s Office and the Sala IV, the officials could face charges of violating a court order, a conviction that carries jail time, he said.
The Tico Times left a message for Dobles, the only government official allowed to discuss Sardinal, but did not receive a callback by press time.