Loss of half of nation’s water is fault of public officials

So far it has been a dry rainy season in Central America, and water reserves are low;  Panamá has declared a drought and has closed schools and reduced government functions in an attempt to cut the consumption of electricity generated from its hydroelectric plants due to low reservoir levels.

As of the date of this writing, the Costa Rican government has warned that we are facing possible, widespread water rationing – and there have already been some communities that have had their water service suspended for varying amounts of time

It’s an easy target to claim that the less than normal rainfall is a byproduct of global warming (or climate change if you prefer that term) and is that possibly true.  But there is another culprit afoot much closer to home which is having a major, but largely ignored, impact on the Costa Rican water supply reserves.  In a single word, it is mismanagement.

In a 2009 WHO/UNICEF report, the “Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, 2010 Estimates,”  it was noted that “non-revenue water (“water losses”) in Costa Rican water companies is high, as most systems are operating with losses usually over 50 percent, a value which reflects a high level of inefficiency . . .”   By comparison, in the USA a loss of 3 percent is considered acceptable and a loss rate approaching 7 percent is serious and cause for investigation.

What does this mean in simple terms?  It means that over one-half of the drinking water that enters the system in Costa Rica never reaches the consumer.  Where does it go?  It runs freely in the streets!

We all have witnessed water flowing in the gutters from the leaks, whether it be spraying in the air from a major rupture or from seeping up through the streets.  Those leaks may continue for days, even weeks, and when we see them they singly don’t appear significant.  But collectively, when considered on a nationwide basis, it is a lot of water that is being wasted!  And it is all due to mismanagement of the resource – mismanagement which trickles down from the highest levels to the maintenance crews in the street who effect inadequate and shoddy repairs on the existing leaks, resulting in them continuing or recurring only a short time later.

Who is ultimately responsible?  That’s an easy question to answer; let’s begin with two simple facts:

1) The Costa Rican water company, AyA (Instituto Nacional de Acueductos y Alcantarillados) is the provider of drinking water services to the population.  In areas where AyA does not provide service, there are local rural water administration boards called ASADAs.  These associations, of which there are more than 2,000 around the country, function as non-profit organizations under the legal framework of the law on associations.  Both AyA and the ASADAs are tasked with the operation and maintenance of water supply systems and communal sewage.  These organizations are based in the Constitutive Act of AyA No. 2726, Regulation of ASADAS-Executive Decree No. 32529-S-, and MINAET and Associations Act No. 218.

2)  Public documents reveal that the economic regulation of the major service providers – AyA and ASADAS – is the responsibility of the regulatory authority for public services (ARESEP). Created in 1999, ARESEP is responsible for tariff setting, setting technical regulations, and monitoring the compliance with those regulations.  Additionally, the responsibility for water and sanitation policy is shared by the ministry of health and the ministry of environment and energy.

So who is responsible?  Ultimately, it is the national government via the regulating bodies who are accountable for the standards of compliance set for AyA and ASADAs . . . and the mismanagement of AyA and the ASADAs themselves.

It’s pretty hard to point a meaningful finger at organizations as large and tenuous as agencies as these.  But what it comes down to is that those organizations are managed by people.  And it is those people, those officials and executives who are responsible for the efficient operation of the organizations, which are mismanaging the resource by allowing a continuing, widespread leakage problem, a problem that results in over 50 percent of the water supply being wasted.

It’s too late to forestall the water rationing that is already happening.  But it’s not too late to start holding those persons who are in positions of management responsible for preventing a future need for water rationing, should climatic events again result in a supply (rainfall) shortage.  And the time to start that is now.

Allen Dickinson

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dickinson credits some of his information to the Puriscal Times.

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