1. Water: A Scarce and Non-Renewable Resource
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
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
- 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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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,
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
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
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]