Do Costa Rica crops have a ‘Water Footprint’?

March 15, 2013

A group of experts from the Center for Water Resources in Central America and the Caribbean (Hidrocec), at the National University (UNA), are studying how much water is consumed by Costa Rica’s agricultural sector, the country’s top consumer of the resource.

The team’s objective is to determine the sector’s hydrological footprint in order to design alternative strategies for hydrological planning and better water management policies in Costa Rica, and to achieve better hydrological and food security. 

According to UNESCO’s Institute for Water Education, the water footprint of an individual, business or nation is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual, business or nation.

The UNA study covered coffee, rice, banana and pineapple crops from 2008-2011.

To calculate a crop’s water footprint, three types of water use are included: “blue water,” “green water” and “gray water.” Green water refers to rainwater collected in the soil and which is absorbed by trees or crops. Blue water is found in rivers, lakes and aquifers, and needs to be transported to be utilized. Gray water is used to dilute contaminants, such as agrochemicals, to levels that are less harmful to the environment. 

“It’s important to know how much water we are using and which crops use the most,” Hidrocec coordinator Andrea Suárez said. “Confronted with scarcity, it is important to know how much water is used in order to improve efficiency of water use given the effects of climate change.” 

Hidrocec agronomist Christian Golcher said the study calculates the water requirement per hectare of farmland for each crop.

“We calculated an amount of cubic meters of water per ton produced for each crop,” Golcher said. “Although the results of the study have not yet been published, we can say that of the four crops included in the study, rice has the greatest hydrological footprint.”

Javier Bogantes, president of the Latin American Water Tribunal, said he is troubled that officials throughout Latin America are allowing the development of large projects that exert extreme pressure on hydrological ecosystems. 

“Our vision is a systemic one, and the problem with the hydrological footprint, although it’s an important contribution, is that it’s not always viewed from a systemic perspective,” Bogantes said. “For us, an analysis of the water issue has to be systemic, as water functions as a system.” 

Bogantes said that one of the biggest mistakes in water management is to focus specifically on water use, which refers to the water that is distributed from one place to another, instead of focusing on aquifers, deep underground water sources and rivers. 

“In Costa Rica, government officials prioritize short-term development that puts at risk what’s most important for the country’s development: water and land,” Bogantes said. 

He cited as an example excessive use of water in the Caribbean region. 

“Between Pérez Zeledón and the Caribbean, there are approximately 55,000 hectares of pineapple plantations that are developing without controls. In that type of development, there is no type of hydrological nor ecological planning,” he said. “The same happened with the expansion of banana plantations.” 

Heavy agrochemical use and excessive water use alter hydrological systems in these regions, he said. Another problem is the amount of water lost to pollution. The amount of water used to produce a crop is less important of a factor, he said.

“Urgent planning is needed in Costa Rica regarding which regions are going to continue developing big single-crop projects,” he said.

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