A Thirsty Country with Lots of Water
“Water is blood’s only eternity. Its strength, made into blood.
Its restlessness, made into blood. Its violent longing for wind and sky, made into blood. Tomorrow they will say that blood became dust; tomorrow the blood will be dried... The river will take charge of the destroyed kidneys and in the middle of the desert the cross of bones
will ask in vain for water to return to men’s bodies....”
Tragic cry of Nicaraguan poet Joaquín Pasos (1914-1947),
more timely every day.
Francisco A. Guevara Jerez
If Nicaragua has anything, it’s water. Fifteen percent of its surface is water: over 75 rivers, no fewer than 32 lagoons and two lakes that cover 9,000 square kilometers. The whole country is an enormous aquifer. Even so, people are thirsty in almost every city and town in Nicaragua. People don’t have access to potable water in at least 55 of the 152 municipalities, where a fifth of the population lives.
Surface water: 70% contaminated...People’s thirst and the crisis over the potable water supply reflect the country’s crisis: abandonment of the poorest, corporate abuse, pollution, lack of public investment. The Pan American Health Organization states that Nicaragua’s rural sector is the most overlooked with respect to water for human consumption, with coverage no greater than 48%, a statistic that has only limited validity given the constant deterioration of rural water systems. Over three-quarters (77.3%) of the households in extreme poverty are without potable water. The areas with the highest numbers of diarrhea-related illnesses also have the least coverage of potable water services.
and the groundwater?
Nicaraguan Water and Sewage Company (ENACAL) statistics record 441,883 potable water connections (residences, institutions, municipal governments, corporations, military) in 163 cities and villages. In Managua there are more than 220,000 connections, 40% of the national total, of which 45% are in bad condition or the service has not been paid. Only 29 Nicaraguan cities have sewage systems and there are 26 municipalities where water is supplied by municipal businesses.
According to the failed National Development Plan (PND) promoted by Enrique Bolaños’ administration, the national potable water coverage would increase to 100% and the sewage system coverage to 95% by 2015. The Humboldt Center, which is dedicated to environmental development, declares that 70% of Nicaragua’s surface water is contaminated by residential and industrial waste and the state of the groundwater is unknown. In Boaco, Chontales and Carazo the water sources are drying up.
Between 73% and 90% of the water supply comes from underground sources. ENACAL states that 42% of those sources don’t have enough water, especially during the dry season (November to April), and the wells dry up a couple of years after they’re dug. In rural areas where water is obtained from gravity-feed sources, water is found at a depth of 67 meters. Until March 2006, ENACAL was producing 297 million gallons of potable water daily, drawn from 480 wells (90% of the national total), from lagoons, rivers and pools of water. More than 5,000 water pipes were administered by their respective communities.
There are realities that escape state control in this situation, whether on purpose or by omission. The Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) has denounced national and transnational companies that are marketing and making a profit from water. They cite water-bottling companies that sell a bottle for 10-15 córdobas (US$0.55 to 0.80), and car-washing businesses that use extraction pumps to increase water pressure. The state does not oversee these companies.
ENACAL President Ruth Herrera confirms, “This situation is out of control. There are 130 private wells in Managua that benefit water-bottling businesses, private residences and hotels. We don’t know how much water they use and they don’t pay for any of it. We’ve found many businesses that are responsible for polluting the aquifer, have illegal water connections and use the aquifer irrationally.” ENACAL calculates that the unpaid bill for clandestine use of water reaches 200 million córdobas.
Lakes and rivers contaminated Engineer Felipe Ortiz Miranda has reported waste water spillage into Lake Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua) from some maquila industrial areas, from tanneries, from rice production, from dairy facilities in Chontales, from large areas dedicated to plantain cultivation in Rivas. Lake Xolotlán (Lake Managua), eight times smaller, is also polluted. All the waste water from the industrial zones of Managua, Ciudad Sandino and Nagarote, as well as the capital city’s sewage, sometimes spill directly or indirectly into its waters. Ortiz points out that the aquifer of the León-Chinandega plain is one of the best in the country, but it contains high concentrations of agrochemical waste (DDT, DDE, Toxafen, Endrin, Methyl).
Rivers like the Siquia (115 km. long) and the Mico (189 km.) receive heavy metals (lead, cyanide, mercury and arsenic) as mining byproducts from La Libertad and Santo Domingo, Chontales. The same occurs in the Bambana River (143 km.) in Bonanza. Many of the mangrove areas in the departments of León and Chinandega are affected by shrimp farming activity and by waste water from the San Antonio and Monte Rosa sugar refineries. The Río Grande de Matagalpa (465 km. long) receives coffee processing run-off and waste water from the Presitex industrial area in Sébaco. The deep rivers that run through the Caribbean Coast take on all the sediment produced by the high and medium zones of the 13 river watersheds that spill their waters into the Caribbean Sea.
Forests mutilatedDeforestation has destroyed our rivers’ watersheds. It’s calculated that Nicaragua loses 150,000 hectares of forest annually (Costa Rica loses 18,500) and no one seems to care enough to stop this crime. A specialist on this topic, Anne Larson, documented the results of a 1981 IRENA study on Nicaragua’s water quality in envío (September 1989).
It was discovered then that 75% of the nation’s water sources were contaminated by agricultural residues, 50% by sewage and 25% by highly toxic industrial waste. Before the 1979 revolution, US gold mining companies had already dumped more than 4,000 tons of cyanide into rivers near the mining towns of Bonanza, Siuna and Rosita. Just in the 1970s, 30% of Nicaraguan forests had disappeared partly because of the plundering of transnational timber companies.
Today, Larson tells us of a recent study by Salvador Mayorga and others, which offers horrifying new statistics: only 5% of Nicaragua’s deforestation is the result of the timber industry and another 20% is used as firewood for domestic and “industrial” use. As high as 75% simply goes up in smoke, in forest fires and to clear land for agriculture.
In October 2005, the Washington-based Center for International Policy (CIP) and Nicaragua’s Center for Communication Research (CINCO) published a report stating that “deforestation in Nicaragua exceeds 32,000 square kilometers, an area far greater than the territorial total of El Salvador.” It adds that 50% of the lumber exported from Nicaragua comes from illegally felled trees and that the water sources in the North Caribbean region are rapidly drying up due to the reduction of the forests.
Teustepe, Boaco, Camoapa: An emblematic example of the potable water crisis is the deforestation occurring in Nicaragua’s central region, in the departments of Boaco and Chontales, which have shorelines on Lake Cocibolca. In Teustepe (30,000 inhabitants), municipality of Boaco, the distribution network was installed in 1970 to supply water directly from the Malacatoya River to 400 households (3,000 inhabitants) within the urban center. Today there are 30,000 inhabitants, but no additional investments have been made in over 30 years. The crisis is made worse because the Malacatoya River receives water from the Fonseca River, where Boaco’s hospital wastes are dumped.
Three different cases, the same abandonment
In Camoapa there was a different problem. The water that supplies the 18,000 inhabitants in the urban center comes from the Rocas Morenas reservoir, where the Cakla, Mombachito and Guambuco Rivers intersect, with a surface of 7 hectares and a depth of 15 meters. In a matter of months, a waterborne plant Nicaraguans call lechuguilla covered two thirds of the water and there was no way to pump it. This grass reproduces very quickly (in just ten months a mother plant reproduces 438 plants) and causes accelerated evaporation because of the large quantity of water it absorbs, especially when the sun is very intense. Specialists calculated that while Camoapa residents consumed 222,000 liters of water daily, the 11.2 million lechuguilla plants that had invaded the reservoir absorbed 5.6 million liters, 25 times more.
A state committee organized to deal with emergencies looked into the case. Someone said that the only solution was to bring in a rhinoceros, because lechuguilla is this African animal’s favorite food. The ENACAL president convinced them of a less bizarre method, and with the help of Nicaraguan Army brigades and the National Agrarian University, they cleaned up 6,130 cubic meters of water in nine days. Camoapa has had water again since the first week of May. The mayor, Rolando Ruiz, learned a lesson: the problem was created by a lack of reservoir maintenance. Ruiz now wants to declare the site a protected area and ratified a municipal government proclamation prohibiting the use of water for activities that are not strictly domestic.
In the city of Boaco, people older than 50 tell about the wonders of the Fonseca River, which crosses the northern side of the city. Besides being the major water source consumed by the residents, the river was the area’s favorite swimming hole and its deep waters hosted diving competitions. Today it is almost completely dry, victim of the total deforestation of the slope where it originates in the Santa Lucía mountains. The Fonseca today is a sewer for the 60,000 inhabitants of Boaco and tons of garbage lay in its dry riverbed.
“What’s happening in Teustepe, Boaco and Juigalpa is going to happen soon in the whole country. We’re becoming a desert, because we’ve managed our abundant water resources irresponsibly,” warned Ruth Herrera during a recent meeting with the mayors of six municipalities in Boaco.
Juigalpa: Water by eyedropperIn Juigalpa, the main city in Chontales, where more than 65,000 people reside, the potable water crisis is total, because the Pirre River dried up, well production decreased 68% and there’s nowhere to get water anymore. “Citizens are suffering the torture of chronic thirst. In favored areas water comes drop by drop every ten days. There are barrios where it never arrives and hasn’t for several years,” writes communications specialist Guillermo Rothschuh Villanueva, resident of Juigalpa.
The debacle could have been avoided during the 2006 dry season, but ENACAL’s recklessly deaf officials didn’t listen to engineer Víctor Manuel Báez’s proposed formula. Seeing the problem intensifying, he suggested in plenty of time that retaining walls could be built on the Cuisalá River, in the Las Limas pass, to retain the water and keep it available. He was preaching in the desert, says Rothschuh. “No one heard his proposal and the scarcity came earlier than ever. The suffering was aggravated terribly. The ENACAL experts’ response was blunt: there was no need to build dikes because the rainy season was going to be very good.”
With the change in government, ENACAL is trying to equip four wells that had damaged and abandoned pumps, but Juigalpa’s hope is Lake Cocibolca. In mid-March, the government inaugurated the first phase of a mega-project to extend the potable water system from Lake Cocibolca to Juigalpa begun in March 2006. Only 7% has been completed. Water has to be brought from Puerto Díaz, some 18 kilometers to the west, and then it’s made potable in an ENACAL treatment plant. With a cost of US$20.6 million financed by South Korea and implmented by the Samsung-Hansol corporation, the system will be capable of pumping 324 cubic meters per hour as of December 2008.
León: Drinking poisonLeón’s water is a victim of contamination. A study done by the Water Microbiology Laboratory at the National Autonomous University’s León campus between July and December 2006 determined that over 95% of the 26 wells that supply the northwest areas of the municipality and 95.7% of the water samples extracted from 65 residential wells in El Tololar community were contaminated with fecal coliform, pesticides and bacteria. “It’s awful. Many residential wells and even ENACAL wells are supervised by inspectors, but they got complaints and did nothing,” claimed León’s Health Ministry delegate, Miurel Gámez. Even though it still hasn’t been confirmed, the consumption of contaminated water in these communities has reportedly caused the death of 21 people and has caused kidney complications in another 11. Dr. Jesús Marín, Director of the National Toxicology Center, states that cotton planted in that area over the last forty years used a large amount of pesticides and herbicides, above all DDT.
Vicente Maltez, of the Nicaraguan Association of Internal Medicine, explains that the contaminated water causes typhoid fever, kidney failure and chronic intoxication, among other evils. If the contamination includes agricultural chemicals, he adds chronic kidney failure. The Kidney Association in Nicaragua cites that 7,000 people have died of kidney problems in the last 15 years. According to Maltez, some 1,300 people died in 2006 alone.
Environmental destruction and water contamination aren’t the only causes of the crisis. It’s also the cruelty of the rich. A typical example concerns three areas within the municipality of Managua: San Isidro de Bolas, Los Bustamante and Los Guillenes, located in the southern river basin, in the foothills of the El Crucero plateau. Nine months ago, approximately 3,000 impoverished inhabitants had residential potable water service that functioned regularly from a well installed by ENACAL. Luxury residential neighborhoods began to be built in that area and their owners drilled into the pipes to supply themselves directly with water without paying a cent for it. Now water gets to people’s homes for just two hours at dawn and they have to go buy water from the new residency owners for 15 córdobas a bucket.
A bankrupt company with old equipmentThe main pump that supplies 14% of Managua’s million inhabitants has a capacity to extract 3,320 gallons per minute and is installed in Lake Asososca. Fifteen days after the change of government it burst and it took six days to fix it. Ruth Herrera is convinced it was damaged on purpose by a group of technicians because she eliminated their privilege of receiving extra pay for hours never worked. Administrative measures have caused many problems for ENACAL’s new administration, which has to cope with more than 3,200 employees organized into 42 unions round the country,.
An institutional report in March 2007 registers 432 million córdobas in short-term debt, the majority for overdue electricity bills. In 2005 the state company had a deficit of 115 million córdobas for lack of payment by users of the utility. In 2007 the monthly deficit is already 31.8 million córdobas. “We have businesses that owe us 70 months worth of bills. Their average debt is 30 months worth. We’ve found cases of users that have pools and were paying fixed amounts of under $17,” explained Herrera.
Just the worker payroll and the payment to Unión Fenosa for electricity, which has increased 78% in four years, surpasses the company’s total income.
ENACAL also proposes that it review its rates. “The idea is that each user should pay for the water consumed,” explains Herrera. “That way concentrated areas of high water consumption won’t just pay fixed amounts. I don’t believe fixed amounts should be charged, because we’re not a homogeneous society. There have to be differences in tariffs to insure that society’s most underprivileged can access public services, but responsibly.”
A full half of Nicaragua’s population doesn’t have direct access to potable water, and 66% of the urban centers don’t have sewage systems. More than 55% of the water pumped is lost to “equipment leaks and illegal supplies.” The distribution networks (1,800 km. of pipes), wells (480) and pumping equipment (with 87 tanks that store 37 million gallons) haven’t been serviced in at least ten years. Of all the water pumped in 2002, 54.52% leaked away. It’s been that way, year after year.
Costly goals and first achievementsWith a bankrupt public utility, Herrera needs something more than drastic internal readjustment or austerity measures to save it. She slashed her own salary by half and managers’ salaries by 35%. She calculates that the country urgently needs US$150 million to improve and expand the potable water networks and rehabilitate 2,000 kilometers of pipes that need to be replaced in the capital city. She’s also working on getting US$2 million in emergency financing to invest immediately in pumps, machinery, valves, wells and sinks that ENACAL needs to reactivate service areas paralyzed by broken equipment. There are also plans to extend the potable water networks in the rural areas, where 72% of the population has no access to service. This would require financing of US$10 million. In 2007, the new government anticipates 117 water and sewage projects in 52 municipalities, which will benefit almost 116,000 people.
According to Ruth Herrera, ENACAL’s new administration “thinks more about people and their needs than in being a costly operation.” The goal is to decrease the number of neighborhoods and municipalities that don’t receive potable water by 70% in five years, and to increase the number of cities that have sewage systems by 25%. “This assumes,” she says, “that the state can invest in this public service business with social welfare goals and will combine outside resources with public sector investment. This means transferring the limited specific and planned subsidies to the most vulnerable sectors.”
Herrera believes that the goal of increasing the potable water service coverage by 35% in five years is possible if ENACAL can become an efficient business and implements an adequate public investment plan with its own national budget funds and international loans. “We’ve come to work to change this public business into a functioning entity, managed responsibly, honestly and efficiently.”
According to an official report, water production increased by 8.5 million gallons daily in the first three months under her management. With an investment of almost US$205 million of its own funds, ENACAL put 55 new or repaired pumps to work. In the municipality of Ciudad Sandino four new wells were opened. In the high and low eastern areas of Managua the water supply was improved by 80%, with the installation of 19 rehabilitated pumps. Another 19 were installed in Granada, 6 in Juigalpa, 5 in Estelí and 6 in León. During the dry season emergency, tank trucks distributed 4 million gallons of water to 37 neighborhoods where there were no installed pipes and to another 20 where there was virtually no service.
A definitive solution in the Ruth Herrera believes that “the definitive solution for Pacific and central Nicaragua will be getting access to potable water from Lake Cocibolca.” Even though 36 municipalities share Cocibolca, Managua would benefit the most. Brazil has already announced its support for a project proposed by the government to build a gigantic aqueduct that will bring lake water to the capital.
waters of Lake Cocibolca
Before that happens, the lake will have to be cleaned. The biggest natural reserve of fresh water in Central America has been contaminated by industrial waste and sewage over the years. The Center for Aquatic Resources Research (CIRA) warns that an immense mass of toxic waste spills into the Cocibolca carried by Costa Rican rivers that flow into it.
The government announced that it will rein in the businesses that are contaminating the Cocibolca, as well as those that are exploiting the national aquifer without paying a cent to the state. President Ortega committed himself “to correct all this because water is Nicaragua’s petroleum.” He warned the polluting company owners that they should divert the solid waste: “Either they do this or they’re going to look for another place to install their plant! Every day that passes it’s a crime to be polluting that lake.”
Cipriano Sequeira, director of Rural Aqueducts in the 1980s, believes that we still don’t know the real magnitude of the contamination problem in Lake Cocibolca or of the aquifer under the municipal dump, which leaks decomposing liquids into subterranean deposits from which the city of Granada is supplied. “No one has been worried about investigating the contamination that’s surely being produced underneath,” says Sequeira. “What isn’t known is where it goes, or if it’s reaching ENACAL wells in that sector, since there’s no system for monitoring water samples. If contamination monitoring does happen, it will be managed as a state secret, even though people will be paying for the consequences.”
The problem is more serious because Lake Xolotlán drains towards Lake Cocibolca underground and through the Tipitapa River. In the Malacatoya plains, cattle and agricultural producers have deforested the whole area and the rains carry agrochemicals and other wastes to the lake. This alters the ph of the water, and progressively makes some areas of the water sterile. “We irresponsibly throw in the lake more material than can be controlled,” says Sequeira. “It has to stay in balance so it can stabilize what it receives. The lake should be seen not only as a water source, but as a body that, in good conditions, produces food.”
The project of cleaning up Lake Cocibolca, which still houses a unique species—fresh water sharks—and has an island with more than 35,000 inhabitants and water supply problems and 365 small islands of volcanic origin, costs some US$500 million, according to Herrera’s calculations. “It’s a strategic project for Nicaragua,” she says. “We should think about how to draw water from Cocibolca for Managua and Pacific cities, because we’ve deforested the country and every day it’s tougher to get surface water and deep extraction is very expensive. Contamination is the biggest crime that’s committed against water.”
Cleaning up Lake Xolotlán: The case of Managua’s Lake Xolotlán is much more difficult than that of Cocibolca. Until the early 1940s, the lake was the major transportation route between the north and west of the country, and its waters supplied part of the capital city’s population and at least another four bordering municipalities. But the Somoza dynasty’s founder resolved the problem of Managua’s sewage by dumping it in Lake Xolotlán. Fifty years later the lake is a nauseating latrine.
A strategic project underway
At the beginning of 2006 a plan got underway to rescue Xolotlán by eliminating the sewage pipes that spill into it and building a sewage treatment plant in an area of over 21 hectares. The work of collecting, treating and returning water to the lake clean will be done by the British company Biwater International, starting in mid-2008. The plant will have a useful life of seven years, then will be expanded in 2015. It will provide some 183,000 cubic meters of water per day to Managua and Ticuantepe. According to Herrera, in the future it will be capable of treating products filtered from the water, like mud and a large quantity of raw materials, for conversion into fertilizer that will be used for restoring soils in the basin that have lost quality. They are also studying the possibility of producing bio-gas there for generating electricity.
The project’s total cost is US$80 million in loans from KFW of Germany, the Inter-American Development Bank and the German Development Bank. Of those funds, $30 million will be for installing interceptors that will carry the water from Managua’s sewage systems to the treatment plant.
At least 46 industrial companies, including the whole Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone, spill their wastes into Xolotlán. The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and the National Engineering University, with support from the Netherlands, are working on a project so that in 2008, when the treatment pools are completed, no company will spill its waters into the lake without previous treatment. ENACAL doesn’t know how much industrial residue drains into the lake. This project will offer alternatives to business owners for reducing or eliminating this residue.
Water bill moving like sludgeBesides immediate public investment, the key for Ruth Herrera is to promote a aater law. “We don’t have a comprehensive law and that means that numerous entities share responsibility for supervising the water resources and their provision,” she says. At least five state institutions have authority in this area. MARENA controls the quality and protects the water table. The Ministry of Promotion, Industry and Commerce authorizes water use. The Nicaraguan Institute for Water and Sewers (INAA) is the regulating body for public services. The Nicaraguan Institute for Territorial Studies (INETER) controls the hydrological information. The Emergency Social Investment Fund (FISE) builds rural water sysems. In addition, there’s a non-functioning Water Commission. “The law should create a National Water Authority (ANA),” proposes Herrera.
The General Law for National Waters was approved overall in 2005 and in 2006 the first 46 of its 143 articles were passed. One of the already approved articles establishes that “potable water service will not be the object of any privatization, direct or indirect, and will always be considered of a public nature. Its administration, monitoring and control will be under the responsibility and guardianship of the state through the institutions created for such purpose or by those created in the future.” Article 97, still not approved, lists the state’s responsibility in the protection, conservation and future of Lake Cocibolca waters, which is defined as a natural potable water reserve, important for national security.
It was anticipated that the law’s other articles would be approved on March 22, World Water Day, but they couldn’t do it. Among the representatives of the different parties are landholders on whose lands are rivers, dams and reservoirs; there are also politicians linked to owners of urban developments or water-bottling businesses and owners of clandestine wells.
Representative Mónica Baltodano, of the Sandinista Reform Movement (MRS), points out that the private use of the aquifer is regulated in the water law and “all well drilling done for any reason has to be registered, except for those used by peasants.” The vice president of the National Assembly’s Environmental Commission, FSLN representative José Martínez, promises that the law will give ENACAL full authority to measure and charge the owners of clandestine wells for their water consumption. If this happens, ENACAL’s income would increase by 3%.
Big, greedy interests oppose the water lawAccording to Clemente Martínez of the Humboldt Center, a sector of big users of ENACAL have been lobbying representatives of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) because they don’t want to pay a fee for water use. “There are cattle ranchers and big farmers in that alliance and they don’t want to pay for the water their businesses consume. The ALN bench has representatives of their interests, so they are echoing the demand of those who don’t want to pay for water. We’re talking about the National Cattle Ranching Commission, where UPANIC (of COSEP) and UNAG (Sandinista) are both members. The commission’s members say they don’t agree with Article 87, which requires them to pay for each cubic meter of potable water. We, however, believe that we should all pay for water, those that are connected to the public ENACAL grid and those who have their own well, like the rice producers in Sébaco, who have many wells and don’t pay a cent.” There are also PLC interests that oppose the law, particularly an article that refers to cost limits; many tourist businesses have lobbied representatives to defend their interests. “We’re hostages of those who have never paid for water,” says Martínez. “They have an ecological debt, because they’re the ones who have contaminated the lake waters of Managua and Granada.”
ALN head Eduardo Montealegre defended his legislators’ position, asserting that there are “many inconsistencies that should be analyzed” in the law. He questions in particular an article that establishes the state as owner of at least 50% of any investment for producing hydroelectric energy.
The people need to debateCirilo Otero, of the Center for Environmental Policies Research, believes that many selfish interests have converged to prevent the law’s approval and end the state’s power over water resources. Even though Nicaragua has excellent legal instruments (the mining law, a law on foreign investment in natural resources, laws on natural resource exploitation, and an environmental law), “they aren’t enforced, aren’t known and aren’t in people’s hands.”
Herrera agrees with that point: “The debate over water has to move beyond being a task of institutions and the media. It should become more grassroots and be included in educational programs of all types. It has to be integrated into the agenda of organized barrios and regions, into the social, community, religious and political organizations. Only in this way will people be informed and able to adopt solutions. Only in this way will we begin to manage water use rationally.”
Francisco A. Guevara Jerez is a journalist.