The Río San Juan is ours. We’re getting tired of repeating it.
Lake Xolotlán, Lake Cocibolca, the Río Grande de Matagalpa, the Río Coco…they’re ours too, as are all the other bodies of water above and below ground. We don’t see or think about aquifers, but they give us the water we drink. I investigated the situation of this underground water in Managua and by the time I finished, I was very worried.
There will always be water: that’s how the majority of people in Nicaragua think when they use, and even abuse water, and when they demand it as a right. Our two big lakes, all the lagoons, crater lakes and plentiful rivers throughout the territory, as well as the torrential rains each winter create this illusion. How do you explain to people who think this way that the quality of water is as important as its quantity? Lack of education, the meager budget assigned to caring for the environment and the scant scientific information that reaches us combine to produce indifference, an Olympian apathy.
As Nicaraguans we always say we’re proud of our country. Why then so much neglect, such poor treatment of our environment? And why is it that even the people with greater economic capacity, those who are educated and have access to scientific information, don’t seem to have the political will to take care of the environment either?
I had the opportunity to work with a team of young researchers, a man and two women, on an investigation conducted by the Strategic Litigation Group of the Institute for Business Development Associations (IDEAS) looking for answers to those and other questions.
We wanted to know how waste water is treated in some of the new residential areas that have emerged in the suburbs of Managua, advertised as “dream” places. We wanted to know what happens to the used water, whether sewage or gray water, issuing from the beautiful and expensive new houses in those estates. Is it channeled? Does it go through a sewer system or drains? Where does this water, contaminated with organic or inorganic waste, end up? We chose two critical points of the capital city, where urban development happens more quickly. More specifically we visited urban housing developments located in what is known as sub-basin III of Managua, which starts in Nindirí and continues north all the way up to the area surrounding the international airport.
Where does Managua get its drinking water?Managua’s water supply is fragile. Even though the capital was designated to be built on the banks of Xolotlán, a lake with a surface area of over a thousand square kilometers, and is close to several crater lakes (Tiscapa, Asososca, Nejapa, Xiloá), our drinking water only comes from Asososca, which supplies 10-12% of Managua’s inhabitants. The water the rest of the city’s residents drink is drawn from three well fields, located at Las Mercedes, Sabana Grande and kilometer 17 on the Masaya Highway. Experts believe the water we drink is of good quality.
Management plans to ensure the quality of the water in the Asososca reservoir are observed, but water quality in the well fields depends on the extent of the protection implemented in their recharge areas. And that’s the big problem: in recent years there has been intense logging in what should have been kept as a reserve. Adding insult to injury, several residential estates have been allowed in the same area.
If it’s important to take strategic care of the surface water of a reservoir, the same care must also be given to underground water, which depends on rainwater soaking into the soil and reaching a certain depth. This hydrological process of precipitation, surface water run-off and water absorption by roots and soil is vital. We’re taught it from primary school, but it seems that later we completely forget it.
This process takes place in the river basins. In Nicaragua we have 23 basins with a similar geographical configuration: the main rivers that form it are born high in the mountains and travel miles until they reach a body of water, be it a lake, a lagoon or the sea. All along the main river’s course many other smaller rivers feed into it, forming a network resembling that of the veins and arteries that run through our body. The fate varies of any drop of water falling at any point along any basin: it can evaporate, be absorbed by tree roots, penetrate the earth and filter through to the aquifer or run down until it finds a river and in its waters reach the sea.
Do developers obey the rules or not?Managua belongs to the Río San Juan basin, which is divided into sub-basins. Three of those sub-basins pass through Managua, and are shared by it, Masaya and other municipalities. The Managua sub-basins start at the top of the Masaya and El Crucero highways and flow into Lake Xolotlán (also known as Lake Managua). As inhabitants of the capital, we belong to this natural system, which we can’t alter without expecting consequences. Everything we touch in the high part of the municipalities will impact on the people living in the lower part.
Sub-basin III, the one we investigated, covers 44.1% of the municipality of Managua and 28.1% of the municipality of Ticuantepe. In lesser percentages it spreads into three other municipalities: La Concepción, El Crucero and Nindirí. Nicaragua’s Water and Sewage Authority (ENACAL) has demarcated zones 1 and 2 as protection areas for the aquifer in this sub-basin in its “Location drawing of urbanizations approved, rejected and in process in 2008.”
Both areas are of special importance because they have the best conditions for replenishing the wells that supply drinking water to the capital. As proof of our inability to impose urban planning, however, the rapid urban growth in recent years is precisely in those areas. If we’re going to build on these recharge areas, it demands a series of preventive measures previously evaluated and authorized by the municipal governments, ENACAL and the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MARENA)... and then, of course, implemented. We set out to investigate whether that chain of responsiblity is observed or not.
Where does that water go?The General Law of National Waters, Law 620, requires developers to allocate 25% of the area where they build to green areas to compensate for the soil they carpet with cement. Within the environmental impact studies they must do, they also have to include waste water treatment works a well as containment or filtration works to avoid flooding when it rains. Any infrastructure they build to receive and treat waste water must by systematically maintained, a cost the builders or residents must take on.
Some analysts use the construction thermometer to measure a country’s economic development: more construction = more development. A country that puts up lots of buildings has a healthy economy, they say. But if you build wildly, that “development” compromises the wellbeing of future generations, to whom we may perhaps bequeath roads, bridges, buildings and houses, but not quality water, essential to living in the houses, crossing the bridges and enjoying the roads.
It’s easy to imagine that waste water might not be adequately treated in Reparto Schick, Jorge Dimitrov or Hugo Chávez, Managua neighborhoods inhabited by impoverished people for many and varied reasons. These neighborhoods lack public investment in sanitation, in sewer systems. In contrast it’s hard to believe that in residential estates that attract those who can spend between $70,000 and $120,000 for a house, no one thinks twice about where the water from the toilet, the laundry or the rain will end up. When marketing their nice houses, the construction companies show the client its rooms: the kitchen, bathrooms, perimeter wall and the security guards’ booth if it’s a condo. They assure them the house will have electricity and drinking water. Sometimes they tell them there’s a storm water management system. Nonetheless, neither buyer nor seller tends to worry about how waste water is handled.
What did we discover in our investigation?In the study we conducted in the 26 residential estates we visited, all built on the land of sub-basin III, we found various waste water treatment systems, ranging from the most rudimentary and least specialized, such as a cesspool, to the most sophisticated, such as activated sludge systems.
We returned from this investigation and these visits very worried. In 15 of the 26 residential estates treatment systems had been installed that leave much to be desired: 12 have up-flow anaerobic tanks, two have cesspools and one has an up-flow anaerobic sludge blanket (UASB) reactor. All three of these are considered artisan systems that don’t clean the water enough to meet the minimum quality established by our country’s approved health regulations when it reaches the aquifer.
In 10 other residential estates activated sludge systems had been installed, one of which was a more economical hybrid version. We found that two of those systems didn’t work: in Palmanova the treatment tank was abandoned and in Ciudad Real water was only treated in 12-hour cycles, when it should operate 24 hours.
We also observed, however, that the activated sludge systems seemed to be operating properly in Planes de Veracruz, Los Almendros and La Cascada. In the other five residential estates where they said they had this system we couldn’t watch it in operation, because the people we dealt with couldn’t figure out where it was installed, leading us to suspect that perhaps they were “installed” only on paper or were abandoned.
What are ENACAL and MARENA, which are the appropriate authorities, doing allowing housing developers to build while neglecting their responsibility to treat the waste water that will be produced by the homes they sell? MARENA in theory approves the management systems when it assesses an urban development plan’s environmental impact if the construction will be in a recharge area of the capital’s aquifer because it’s vital that developers comply with requirements and install the best systems to handle waste water and storm run-off. The question is whether, once approved, it monitors them to see if and how they work.
What about corporate social responsibility?Does “corporate social responsibility,” which every company talks about these days, even exist? In the name of this responsibility, developers should be worrying about ensuring proper waste water treatment in the residential estates they build. This responsibility also gives them the task of educating their clients about the importance of maintaining waste water treatment plants. Even a brief talk could at least ensure that such a vital subject will stop being so ignored.
Corporate responsibility involves accepting that there are areas in the Managua basin that shouldn’t be disturbed due to their fragility. Specifically, aquifer recharge zone 1 must be preserved and reforested. Preserving it with forest cover is not a financial loss; it’s an investment that ensures the quality of drinking water in the wells. No old Managua neighborhood much less any new residential community in the outskirts of Managua will be sustainable if it doesn’t have a drinking water service.
Just as the road being built by the Costa Rican government alongside its bank of the Río San Juan affects flora, fauna and the entire ecosystem wherever it passes, causing erosion and depositing earth in our river, any residential estate built in zones 1 and 2, in addition to limiting the replenishment of the aquifer, puts underground water at risk of contamination. We passionately defend the waters of the river we see but don’t even think to defend the water we can’t see yet from which we live.
There’s pollution already According to our research, part of the waste water in sub-basin III is filtering through and could reach the aquifer. Other waste water, mixed with rainwater, is ending up in the nearest drainage channels and together with the runoff caused by the slopes of our capital get as far as the low-lying areas of Managua.
Filtration of waste water into the aquifer in this vital area can generate a considerable volume of pollutants because the soil is volcanic, increasing the risk that any waste water might become mixed with underground water. The contaminated aquifer wouldn’t be able to feed the wells that provide our drinking water without prior treatment. And treatment plants are very expensive. What about rain water? If there are no filtration works, which are obligatory according to construction regulations, its fate will simply be to run off into Lake Xolotlán, causing severe flooding on its way if the rain is voluminous enough. This water, which could serve to replenish the aquifers, will simply be lost as run-off.
A member of the residents’ committee of a housing estate in sub-basin III told us: “People here would refuse to pay for any sewage treatment. They think that by paying their drinking water bill they’ve already done their bit.” These residents don’t know that it’s much more expensive to treat their dirty waste water than to get drinking water to their houses. How can educated people with purchasing power think like this? They simply don’t think about it, and no one has ever brought it to their attention. This shows how important citizens’ education is to bringing about change.
How much does it cost to treat this water?The “high” costs of maintaining a treatment plant are relative to the number of houses it covers and depend on the type of process it uses. There are various waste water treatment systems, whose costs vary according to their distribution and the electricity they consume. Nicaragua has several companies that specialize in installing these systems. One of them installs activated sludge plants, whose installation and maintenance costs are reasonable.
These plants have the capacity to process sewage from approximately 75 houses and ensure that any water processed is of the required quality. They need an electric motor to function. Operating one of these plants would cost each house connected about US$15 a month. Is this too much for houses that cost up to $120,000 to buy?
The consequences of not assuming our responsibility for managing both waste water and rain water is reflected each year in the news items that tell us about floods across the whole of Managua, and throughout the country. The rain channels that crisscross the capital, as deep as they are, can’t hold all the water from the rainy season’s increasingly torrential rains, and when they overflow, they cause human and economic disasters.
Such flooding also reveals our endemic tendency to irresponsibly discard trash anywhere. When the rain channels overflow or back up through the drains that connect to them on the major streets, all the rubbish imaginable floats up: tires, bottles, dead animals, all kinds of organic waste and a shocking number of those little plastic bags of drinking water sold on every street and simply dropped once emptied. There are so many of these pretty blue bags that they confirm what you sometimes hear said, that they are our “national flower.”
Contaminating our aquifers and subsequently ingesting water that doesn’t meet the quality parameters cause serious diseases. Water is an excellent means of transport for many harmful bacteria, viruses and protozoa. Cholera, lepto¬spirosis, botulism, giardiasis and trichuriasis are only some of the diseases transmitted by contaminated water.
What does the plant Germany donated do?The “Y main sewer” is an installation of pipes designed to take waste water all the way from Ticuantepe and Veracruz to the Waste Water Treatment Plant in Managua. This project, donated by the German government to the government of Nicaragua, ended in February 2009, after only managing to install pipes from the treatment plant as far as the Lomas de Guadalupe settlement. It was abandoned because the government considered other projects had a higher priority. That’s why the residential estates located in that sector must take responsibility for treating their own waste water.
We were told about the “Y main sewer” by one of the residents of Prados de Eucalipto during our research. It was to have received the waste water from that residential estate and taken it to the treatment plant. “They said more than seven years ago that they’d build it, but they never did.”
The Waste Water Treatment Plant in Managua was an expensive strategic project. The US$90 million invested in putting together the high-tech collection system and plant was meant to save Lake Xolotlán, which has received the excrement of the capital’s population, all the domestic waste, slaughterhouse remains and plastic objects of all shapes and sizes since back in Somoza’s time. Currently the plant is receiving a smaller amount of waste water because three pumping systems installed to compensate for hollows in the landscape are out of order. During our investigation we learned that the untreated water wasn’t pumped out and simply continued its course down to the lake.
Are good laws enough?Nicaragua has some of the most comprehensive environmental legislation in the Central American region. Everything regarding waste water is made quite clear in the laws, which establish the tolerable biological parameters (bacteria such as E. Coli), physical parameters (temperature, turbidity and color) and chemical parameters (chromium, arsenic, nitrates and nitrites, among others) in waste water discharges.
Drinking water also has internationally established parameters. The CAPRE Standard (which stands for Coordinator of Drinking Water and Hygiene Institutions of Central America, Panama and the Dominican Republic) is aimed at ensuring the physical, chemical and bacteriological quality of the water we drink. Luckily for Managua, the wells we have today provide high quality water that only requires conventional non-specialized treatment, thus keeping its distribution costs lower. But that could change: if the Asososca reservoir or any of the well fields from which water is extracted were to become contaminated, we’d all have to pay more for water in our houses because ENACAL would have to provide more costly treatment. The rest of Nicaragua isn’t so lucky. There are areas of the country where water is permanently scarce. In 2010 ENACAL provided drinking water to 86% of the nation’s population, while only 36% had a sewage service.
Having good laws doesn’t guarantee they are kept. The fact that some state institutions linked to water have a budget that’s far below adequate indicates government priorities. Many of Managua’s potable water pipes are over 60 years old and, horrifyingly, many of these and other more recent ones are made of asbestos, a material we now know is carcinogenic. Investment in sewage systems has been scarce over the last 50 years and new infrastructure has been directed at interceptors and pumping systems that take waste water to the treatment plant.
Half of even the capital’s population isn’t connected to the sewage system. With such an old and deficient system we could imagine that improving, renewing and extending sewage service and water distribution in a city that has grown faster than its pipeline network would be a priority. But Ruth Selma Herrera, who headed ENACAL between 2007 and 2010, is critical of a government subsidy being given to the energy sector and never to the water supply. In her three years managing ENACAL she was never able to change that, and since water is as vital to the poor as to the rich, the monthly water bills couldn’t be hiked either.
According to Law 620, “individuals and legally constituted bodies, whether public or private, that discharge waste water to receiving bodies must operate and maintain the works and facilities necessary for managing and, when necessary, treating waste water by themselves or through third parties.” While MARENA is responsible for monitoring construction companies and industries that have this responsibility, it’s virtually impossible to do so with its limited budget. In addition, our country’s age-old impoverishment justifies demanding very little of both national and foreign investors.
How much longer?If we believe Nicaragua needs to protect, conserve and enhance its natural resources, thinking of the development of tourism and knowing we’re a country that lives off agricultural resources and also that some of Nicaragua’s biggest businesses hugely exploit water resources, we would also have to believe that MARENA should have enough resources and personnel to do that work. But it doesn’t.
The Ministry of Finance and Public Credit (MHCP) is proud that the plants that manufacture beer, soft drinks and bottled water, which are the industries that exploit water in a particularly big way, contribute a lot to the national budget. The MCHP estimates that these big water consumers will pay the equivalent of some US$600 million in taxes this year. Meanwhile MARENA, charged with ensuring the quality of that water, only received 0.5% of the national budget, a little more than US$96 million, a derisory sum compared to what was allocated to the Supreme Court of Justice (just under US$73.5 million) or the Supreme Electoral Council (approximately US$504 million).
These conditions seriously endanger our underground water and make it entirely foreseeable that environmental disasters of all kinds will keep on occurring without anyone ever being held accountable for them. How long are we prepared to let that continue?
Harold Bellanger is an environmental quality engineer and a researcher at the Institute of Associative Business Development (IDEAS).