Controversial Dredging of the Río San Juan Begins

October 19, 2010

The dredging of the Río San Juan, the river that serves as the eastern part of the northern border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, began Monday amid heightened concern by Costa Rican officials about the potential environmental and economic impacts of the operation.

The dredging of the river, which is being done to reduce sediment build-up and make the river more easily navigable, began Monday in the town of San Juan del Norte, at the mouth of the river in the southeast corner of Nicaragua. Currently, due to sedimentation, much of the rivers’ water flows into Costa Rican territory through the Río Colorado, which branches off the Río San Juan 37 kilometers from its mouth. The dredging will restore much of the river’s water back to its original course.

The ownership and rights to the use of the Río San Juan has long been a bone of contention between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In 2009, the question went before the International Court of Justice, based in The Hague, which ruled that although the river belongs to Nicaragua, Costa Rica is allowed to freely navigate it (TT, July 13 2009).

Since Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced plans to dredge the river in July, concerns have been mounting in Costa Rica about the potential environmental effects of the procedure. According to Costa Rican Foreign Minister René Castro, studies undertaken in Costa Rica have confirmed that the dredging of the river would diminish the amount of water flowing into the Río Colorado, which flows through the Barra del Colorado national refuge in northwest Costa Rica (TT Sept. 8).

Many in Costa Rica also fear the environmental effects of Nicaragua’s planned construction of a $600 million hydroelectric plant near the town of El Castillo, on the Río San Juan. Should river’s water be used to produce hydroelectric energy, communities downstream are concerned that disrupted and diminished water flow could potentially affect wildlife in and along the river.

“If there is a hydroelectric dam using the flow of the river for electricity in Nicaragua, how much of that water is going to make it to the Río Colorado?” asked Roberto Mata, a Barra del Colorado police officer. “If this town doesn’t have water, we have nothing. People make their living on this river.”

On Tuesday, Presidency Minister Marco Vargas, the head of President Laura Chinchilla’s cabinet, said that the situation will be closely monitored, and the government will assure that the rights of both Nicaraguan and Costa Rican citizens will be respected as the dredging moves along.

For more on this story, see the October 29 print and digital editions of The Tico Times.

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