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Regional Efforts in Water Resources Management and Conservation: A Matter of Urgency
Maureen Ballestero V.

1. Water: A Scarce and Non-Renewable Resource
When we think of water as a resource, we usually picture it piped into our homes, or as a broad, fast-flowing river or huge lake, or maybe as one of those torrential downpours that are so common in our Central American countries. We always associate water with abundance, and some of us may even have been taught that water is a free and inexhaustible resource.

While it is true that 71% of the planet's surface is covered by water, perhaps we never stopped to consider that 97% of this is ocean. Of the remaining 3%, a large part is locked away in polar icecaps. Only a minute fraction (0.014%) can be used for all the many processes that are so vital to us.

It is estimated that over one billion people have no access to clean drinking water, and 1.7 billion do not have adequate sanitation facilities.

According to Agenda 21, one of every three persons in developing countries lacks drinking water and basic sanitation services, causing 80% of diseases and one-third of all deaths.

2. Regional Context
In its 520,000 square kilometers of territory, Central America possesses an enormous wealth of surface and groundwater resources. In all of the countries, this great hydrological potential is in sharp contrast to the modest percentages of use and low current demand, given that drinking water and sanitation services are not supplied for 45% of the almost 36 million Central Americans. Now the urgent need to meet a geometrically increasing demand for fresh water is being complicated by environmental degradation.

Freshwater supplies throughout the Central American region are threatened by:

  • The deforestation of catchment areas, which reduces the regenerating capacity of sources and worsens soil erosion;
  • Expanding urbanization and industrialization, with the latter contributing almost 50% of the total load of BOD ; and
  • Deteriorating water quality due to the discharge of untreated sewage; uncontrolled deposit of solid waste in water flows; and unsound use of agrochemicals in rural farming activities.

Large extensions of wetlands have been drained to make way for grazing areas or intensive agriculture, mainly rice and sugar cane cultivation, despite the importance of these ecosystems in retaining sediments, nutrients and toxic substances, and regulating increases of water. Wetlands have a critical function with respect to the conservation of ecological processes and biodiversity dynamics all along basins.

Rapidly growing mining activity has caused alterations in freshwater ecosystems, due to both ordinary operations and accidents.

In addition, the Central American region is highly vulnerable to natural disaster from climatic and meteorological phenomenon, with great loss of life and high socioeconomic costs. Country borders have no meaning for La Niña, El Niño, hurricanes, floods, and droughts, whose severe effects cause setbacks to the sustainable development process in all of the countries.

It is important to remember that more than one-fourth of the surface water in this isthmus is located within transboundary areas. Since resources for investment in these areas are scarce, and given the political problems affecting Central American countries actions for sustainable management in these zones has been far from ideal.

3. Shared Problem
This delicate situation is due to a series of aspects whose importance varies depending on each Central American country:

  • Water has not been assigned an economic or ecological value for all of those who use it.
  • There is no concept of solidarity concerning water and its use.
  • Central American nations have not included water as a resource on their policy agendas. This situation is slowly changing as governments acquire new commitments through their signature to conventions and agreements, and due to pressure from the social groups that are affected.
  • As a consequence, the development of institutional administrative systems for water management has been inadequate, isolated and sectoral.
  • Jurisdictional fragmentation results in gaps and duplicity of functions, which is reflected in the incapacity to exercise aspects of administration, control, operation and services. In this sense, it could be said that a process of transformation is currently taking place in the water sector of the region's countries.
  • Weak legal framework to support the implementation of integrated management and application of the needed regulatory instruments.
  • There is no real and integrated knowledge concerning the availability (quantity and quality) of national water resources.
  • Little participation by society in the control, protection and management of water.
  • Lack of integrated management based on catchments as the unit of planning and the incorporation of an ecosystem perspective in development planning

4. Factors for Change
During the last 20 years a large number of world and regional conferences and agreements have taken place aimed at finding solutions to the problems and crises caused by poor use of water. These include:

  • Water and Environment, Dublin 1992
  • The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 1992
  • The Central American Alliance for Sustainable Development ("ALIDES"), October 1994
  • Management of Water Resources in Latin America, San José, 1996
  • Water and Sustainable Development, Paris, 1998

The strategy proposed in all these fora involves gradual implementation of integrated water resources management, aimed at planning of water use in terms of quantity, quality, place and time in the hydrological cycle. Integrated management must be oriented toward maximizing and balancing benefits that are social (equity), economic (growth), and environmental (sustainability.)

Both individually and jointly, Central American countries have implemented various initiatives with support from the international community in order to solve their water management problems. These include updating the Action Plan for Integrated Water Management in the Central American Isthmus (Plan de Acción para el Manejo Integrado del Agua del Istmo Centroamericano - PACADIRH), which was initiated in March 1998 under the aegis of the Central American Commission on Environment and Development (Comisión Centroamericana de Ambiente y Desarrollo - CCAD); the Regional Committee on Hydraulic Resources (Comité Regional de Recursos Hidráulicos - CRRH); the Regional Steering Committee for Potable Water and Sanitation Institutions in Central America, Panama and the Dominican Republic (Comité Coordinador Regional de Instituciones de Agua Potable y Saneamiento de Centroamérica, Panamá y República Dominicana - CAPRE); and Danish development cooperation. This plan establishes a set of strategies and actions to orient and harmonize regional water resources in a sustainable manner.

Proposed actions include the following:

  • Create an awareness in decision makers and in the general population concerning the need for comprehensive water resources management and the importance of assessing water as a good with economic and ecological value;
  • Strengthen institutional capacity and the modernization and standardization of measurement networks; and
  • Encourage the use of clean and alternative technologies for wise use and promote direct action for comprehensive water management in shared basins.

In addition, organizations or authorities are now being established to put water management into practice in real situations.

There are examples of this in various areas of the region, such as the Amatitlán and Atitlán lakes, in Guatemala; Ilopango Lake, in El Salvador; and the Quebradas, Tempisque and Tárcoles rivers, in Costa Rica.

No one model has been used in forming these agencies, whose creation stems from civil society's interest in greater participation and shared responsibility, as well as a trend toward decentralization. Nevertheless, their solidification requires an approach that focuses on identifying: a) critical problems; b) priority areas for intervention; and c) mechanisms to resolve the problems identified. Finally, there must be political will to support the creation and solidification of these agencies as proactive management entities.

5. Final Reflections
Water should not become a constraining factor in the pursuit of sustainable development and human wellbeing. Immediate action should be taken toward an integrated approach aimed at efficient and equitable use, and the administration, conservation and protection of water.

Despite similarities among the Central American countries, there is no one solution to problems of water. While certain aspects need to be improved in existing instruments and mechanisms (PACADIRH, national plans, new legislation pending approval, the creation of catchment agencies, etc.), these are important and costly efforts that should start being implemented under the responsibility of all sectors.

Finally, one of the priorities for integrated water management is the development of a critical mass to identify and carry out sound solutions for regional, national and local situations.

Contributed by Maureen Ballestero, National Consultant for the Action Plan for Water in the Central American Isthmus (PACADIRH) and President of the Asociación para el Manejo de Cuenca del Río Tempisque (ASOTEM), an organization working on behalf of management of the Tempisque River basin.
Address: P.O. Box 14-5000
Liberia, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Tel (506) 666-1596
Fax (506) 666-2967
E-mail: [email protected]


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