1. Water: A Scarce and Non-Renewable 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
Freshwater supplies throughout the Central American region are threatened by:
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
4. Factors for Change
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:
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
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.