When the water went off in March, it was for a few hours at a time. Then, a few weeks later, it shut off for eight hours every day, then for 16 hours. Now, in May, San Isidro de Heredia residents are lucky if they get any water at all.
“It affects more than you would think,” said resident Laura Astua. “You can’t wash anything, you can’t bathe. The area lacks basic sanitary services.”
Astua is one of 20,000 people in Costa Rica affected by water rationing, according to the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (AyA), which manages more than 50 percent of the country’s water. Residents hope that light rains that began to fall Thursday night will continue. Otherwise, the situation will get worse, they say.
What caused the drought?
The problem is not the lack of rain now, but the lack of rain before.
“The issues this year can be attributed to irregular behavior during the transition period,” said Eladio Solano, a meteorologist with the National Meteorological Institute (IMN). By transition period, he means all of April and early May, which in a normal year see a few good storms. “For the past several years, we have seen unusual behavior at the end of summer, where there is no rain at all,” he said.
Usually, the country’s reservoirs can handle a dry transition period with rainfall accumulated during the rainy season. But this year that didn’t happen.
“Last year El Niño was active,” Solano said. “When that happens, the level of rainfall here in Central America is very low.”
That unusually dry rainy season in 2012 left the aquifers dry.
El Niño is a weather phenomenon caused by an unusually warm band of ocean water formed at the Pacific coast of South America. As the water moves up the coast, the higher water temperatures create hotter weather in Central America and less rain along the region’s Pacific coast.
“There are some communities where this is going to cause problems,” Solano said. “It’s pretty simple. Reservoirs need water in order to be reservoirs.”
Unsurprisingly, being hit with dual weather phenomena means the drought has left more than a few Costa Rican communities in a bind. Heredia, north of the capital, and Cartago, to the east, have experienced drastic cuts in services.
“We haven’t been in a situation like this since 1998,” said Andrea Fonseca, a spokeswoman for the Public Services Company of Heredia (ESPH). “In these types of situations, it is Heredia that gets hit the hardest.”
The reason, according to Fonseca, is Heredia’s reliance on surface reservoirs for water. In a drought, rivers, lakes and streams dry out. Underground wells and pools do not. Across the province of Heredia, the ESPH has cut water distribution from the normal 196 liters per second to just 20-30 liters per second.
“Every area has its own system,” said Sergio Núñes, assistant director of AyA’s greater metropolitan area branch. “This means that we have some areas that have more problems than others. They have less rain or lower reservoirs.”
With four high-production reservoirs, San José has experienced very little rationing thus far, but if the rainy season does not start in force, certain areas outside of the capital could begin to see cuts.
While both AyA and the ESPH point to differing systems to explain the inconsistent rationing across the country, residents of the driest areas have begun petitioning for their water to be turned back on.
The townspeople of Tejar del Guarco were the first to strike. CRhoy.com reported that on April 22, a group of some 40 residents blocked a local bridge, threw rocks at police and lit fires. Despite the protest, the town’s taps are still dry with the only water coming in from a truck once a day, according to the daily La Nación.
Other communities struggle with just a few hours of water a day. According to Núñez, AyA will send water trucks to communities with rationing, but only “those most affected.” ESPH also says they are prepared to send trucks, but only after an area goes 24 hours without water.
After three weeks of severe rationing, San Isidro is also on the verge of protesting.
“We are in the planning phases of a strike,” Astua said. “We only have water for a few hours a day and sometimes it isn’t even potable. There are kids with stomach aches all over town and it costs ₡60,000-70,000 to get a truck to come.”
Plan of action
The ESPH has enough water to last for three weeks at the current level of rationing. But if continual rain doesn’t fall soon, the company will need to decrease water output even further. The company says it will need at least three weeks of heavy rainfall to restore the reservoirs to normal levels.
Núñez said that AyA will not increase rationing in the areas where cuts are already in place. But if rain does not start within the next several weeks, other areas will have to begin rationing. AyA reservoirs will need two to three weeks of strong rain to refill depending on the area.
According to the IMN, rains are expected to start this weekend and will continue in strong, short bursts, as is typical of the beginning of rainy season. Light rains began to fall over the Central Valley on Thursday night, continuing into Friday, but as of now, a solid rain has yet to take place.
Lack of rain doesn’t affect only humans. Even the volcanoes are beginning to feel the drought.
According to Gerardo Soto, a volcanologist with the National Seismological Network, the lack of rain is causing the lake in the Poás Volcano, northwest of San José, to dry up. If the drought continues, the lake could disappear altogether.
“The water in the lake serves as a filter for the volcano’s acid,” Soto said. “When the lake dries up, that acid evaporates, leading to more acid rain in the area.”
While the Poás area always experiences some acid rain, air with high acid levels is dangerous when breathed in by humans and animals, and can kill nearby plants.
Follow the weather and find more information about the drought at www.ticotimes.net.