San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New push for water law reform in Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, every aspect of water usage is regulated by the Ley de Aguas, or Water Law. The water we drink from the tap, the management of water sources in national parks, and water used to generate hydroelectric power all have rules and processes outlined by the law. 

But the Water Law has one fundamental problem – it is 69 years old, and no longer fits the model of a developing country hoping to become a developed one by 2020. 

In 1942, the Water Law helped Costa Rica become a pioneer in water management. But today, the law is one of the country’s main obstacles for better managing and protecting its resources. 

In recent years, the need to overhaul water management policy has been drawing attention. In 2009, the National Alliance for the Defense of Water, or ANDA, a coalition of citizens and agencies, presented lawmakers a bill for “integrated” water resources management. 

The bill made it to the Legislative Assembly as a popular initiative supported with more than 150,000 signatures. It establishes the use of scientific planning tools to administer the country’s water. 

But the bill was not the first of its kind. Two previous bills stalled after discussion in the Assembly. 

Two years ago, the Environment, Energy

and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) began pushing for new water laws. Last week, MINAET organized a forum to reflect on Costa Rica’s current water-management policy and the need for modernization. The ministry is currently drafting yet another water bill. 

During the forum, four speakers laid the groundwork for areas that need addressing. 

“Costa Rica has never had any trouble being pioneers in environmental issues. Our problem comes in modernizing and staying on top of the issues before we need drastic changes,” said Environment Minister René Castro during the forum (see story, Page 2).

Castro said that after closely examining all the water-related bills in the Assembly, he found them to be in many ways identical. “Our goal and challenge is to reach consensus with all the agencies on the remaining 20 percent [of differences between the bills],” Castro said. 

“We have to adopt a culture in which water is so valuable that we live as if we were running short on it,” he said. 

Castro used the Norwegian oil model to highlight his message. “Although Norway is one of the richest countries in terms of oil reservoirs, it has managed a way of taxing it to avoid wasteful consumption. They see oil as a scarce commodity.” 

For Castro, although Costa Rica is rich in water resources, a new water law should foster competition. Many Costa Rican companies, such as coffee cooperative CoopeDota and the Cervecería de Costa Rica, have already significantly reduced water consumption as a way to reduce production costs. 

MINAET envisions all Costa Rican companies adapting to scarcity through best practices in water use and by establishing minimum-use parameters.

For many years, environmental groups have been calling for better ways to manage water. Many of these organizations endorsed the bill proposed by ANDA in 2009. 

Costa Rica is home to more than 900 wetlands that include 140,000 hectares of fresh water and 40,000 hectares of mangroves. Most of these wetlands are currently under threat by changes in water and land use, and pollution. Without a new water law, many of these wetlands remain at risk. 

During the forum, Environment Vice Minister Andrei Bourrouet said new strategies are needed not only for water use, but also reuse. “In Costa Rica we have always been used to thinking of water as an expendable resource, and few efforts have been made to implement techniques to reuse water,” he said. 

Bourrouet criticized the National Water and Sewer Institute for failing to maintain the country’s water infrastructure. 

“In recent years, it has not been easy to reach consensus [on a new bill], because it is complex and has the potential to affect everyone,” Castro said. 

MINAET’s bill would add a “global vision” that is not included in bills currently before Congress, he said. As a “student of climate change,” Castro said a new bill should also outline policy to help offset and reduce factors that contribute to the global climate phenomenon.

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