"'Over the past 5 years, Costa Rica experienced the most severe drought in the last 75 years"
The 5th Water Dialogues, to be held in Madrid on October 2nd, are annual meeting fora held to discuss different topics, in order to promote the exchange of knowledge and experiences on issues of interest for the water sector between Latin America and Spain. This time, the focus will be 'Water and resilience to the effects of climate change'.
We have interviewed Yamileth Astorga, President of the Costa Rican authority responsible for water supply and sanitation [Instituto Costarricense de Acueductos y Alcantarillados or AyA], on the occasion of this event.
Question: What are the main water challenges in Costa Rica?
Answer: The percentage of the population with access to drinking water in Costa Rica is noteworthy in Latin America: 92.4% of the population has access to drinking water, thanks to public and community-based operators (known as ASADAS).
Some studies reveal that the country has enough water resources available to meet drinking water demands. However, we need infrastructure to harness those resources. Therefore, since the AyA was created in 2014, our organisation has promoted investments to secure access to drinking water in all communities across the country. This meant establishing priorities, and accelerating projects which were running behind schedule, as well designing and implementing new ones.
One of the main challenges are the new social and environmental conditions, such as variability and climate change: they complicate the provision of services and new projects. During the 2014-2016 period, we experienced the most severe drought in the last 75 years due to the El Niño phenomenon, especially in the Pacific side of the country. Looking into the future, according to forecasts by the Inter-American Development Bank, by 2050 Costa Rica will receive half the precipitation, while the drinking water demand will increase.
Some studies reveal that the country has enough water resources available to meet drinking water demands
Improving the management of close to 1,450 community water distribution systems (ASADAS) is another challenge we have assumed, since they provide drinking water to 30% of the country's population. We thus developed in 2016 a Policy to Strengthen Community Water Management. Within that framework, the AyA supports projects to build infrastructure, build capacity, provide support to protect water resources, etc.
In addition, we should mention the risks derived from the pollution of water sources, caused by natural causes or human activities, lack of land use planning or national governance deficiencies that hinder appropriate water resource management.
Regarding access to sanitation, only 15% of the population has advanced sanitation services. Septic tanks are the most widespread sanitation systems, used by 70% of the population, and there is still 13.4% of the population served by a sewage system where the waste water collected goes untreated. We have hence promoted a sanitation route, with a public policy that goes to 2045 and a national plan of investments in this area worth $6,224 million. Currently 9 projects are ongoing, at different stages.
Q: Which measures is AyA putting in place to address these water challenges?
A; Regarding the 2014-2016 drought that affected the Pacific side and centre of the country, particularly the province of Guanacaste, the government developed an Integrated Water Supply Programme for Guanacaste (PIAAG) in collaboration with the AyA and other institutions. Under that framework, the AyA promoted 12 water conveyance infrastructure projects worth more than $78 million to provide a permanent solution to drought, water stress, increased salinity of coastal water sources, and the presence of arsenic in water.
To continue the work started by the PIAAG, several institutions including ours are working on a water infrastructure and integrated water resource management plan for the North Pacific, 2018–2030. The plan will ensure access to quality water in adequate amounts to communities, to support economic activity and ecosystems, in an efficient and sustainable manner. The plan includes drinking water projects, as well as irrigation and drainage projects, based on the competencies of each entity, in coordination with civil society.
In addition, our institution has a portfolio of 111 water projects, with an investment of $1000 million for all regions in the country.
Improving the management of close to 1,450 community water distribution systems (ASADAS) is another challenge we have assumed
Monitoring water quantity and quantity in up to 629 wells in the entire country allows us to have first-hand information to make decisions. We have reinforced the institution hiring more staff with a background in hydro-geology, since groundwater sources are essential to ensure water availability for human consumption.
Concerning pollution risks, we provide incentives for water safety plans and the protection of water sources. Moreover, our National Water Laboratory is accredited to identify traces of 15 agricultural pesticides used in the country. Together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), we are monitoring the country's northern region, where intensive monoculture farming is common.
Finally, I would like to mention that we have enacted three public policies that outline national water management actions: the Policy to Strengthen Community Water Management (2017), the National Waste Water Sanitation Policy (2017) and the National Drinking Water Policy (2018).
Q: Can you tell us about Costa Rica's experience with climate change?
A: Over the past 5 years, Costa Rica experienced the most severe drought in the last 75 years, the first hurricane that crossed the country's northern region (Hurricane Otto, 2016) and tropical storm Nate, that caused infrastructure damages all over the country.
Our institution has a portfolio of 111 water projects, with an investment of $1000 million for all regions in the country
In the case of the 2014-2016 drought, institutions worked together on the Integrated Water Supply Programme for Guanacaste (PIAAG), as mentioned earlier.
Currently we are experiencing very low rainfall in the Great Metropolitan Area (GAM) of the country, so we had to implement water restrictions and to expand an Emergency Decree due to drought, to include several cantons in the GAM. The solution is to increase the water flow to the city with an investment of close to $375 million, that entails the expansion of the water conveyance infrastructure to the metropolitan area. It is a large project that will be in operation in 2024.
In the case of the hurricane, water conveyance infrastructure had to be rebuilt: after Hurricane Otto hit the country in 2016, 24 affected community water pipelines were rebuilt with the support of the United Arab Emirates.
Also worth noting is a capacity building project aimed to community water management entities (ASADAS), to address climate change risks in Costa Rica's northern communities, done jointly with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and with financial support from the Global Environment Fund (GEF). It involves a $1,097,000 investment to benefit 56 ASADAS and 85,000 people. The project will involve infrastructure, technical capacity, ecosystem-based adaptation, implementation of an early warning system, and the purchase of 342 hectares to protect water sources.
We also had to redesign infrastructure to adapt it to new environmental conditions, as it happened with the new water conveyance infrastructure to the city of Pérez Zeledón after storm Nate hit the country in 2017.
Over the past 5 years, Costa Rica experienced the most severe drought in the last 75 years
Q: What are your expectations from this 5th Water Dialogues?
A: Hearing about successful experiences and lessons learned that we can replicate in our country and also share through the Central America and Dominican Republic Forum on Drinking Water and Sanitation (FOCARD-APS), given that, in the coming months, I will become President pro tempore.