We Have to Learn to Stop Taking Water for Granted
An insider in the Nicaraguan Water and Sanitation Company (ENACAL) shares some of the problems and challenges of this state institution responsible for providing drinking water to the population.
Azucena Castillo López
When we were children in the eighties, we experienced something extraordinary: the generation before ours, young men and women only slightly older than us, invited us to dream and organize to defend our dreams, our right to social justice and economic equity. They taught us to give our lives for a collective dream. The years passed and the dream-killing empire ruined the party, although I believe the weaknesses of both our leaders and ourselves played a part, with them abusing the power we gave them and us believing they deserved so much power. Now we have the same party that was the vanguard of that revolution back in government again, but it didn’t take office in the same circumstances and didn’t come with the same values. We’ve changed as well: today we understand that making a revolution is much more than just getting into government.
I agreed to work in this government, in ENACAL, to continue defending the dreams of change I learned as a girl. ENACAL defends the right to water, the most vital resource there is. I wanted to support the work of Ruth Selma Herrera, who I’m sure agreed to be the executive director of ENACAL with a motivation similar to mine. Ruth isn’t a paper-pushing economist or someone who administers businesses from behind a desk. After 1990 she didn’t take refuge in a personal business like so many others. She continued educating herself and headed up a struggle to get us to learn to organize and defend our social economic rights with the law in our hand. As an activist lawyer at the head of a consumer defense organization, she won various suits against the Spanish transnational company Unión Fenosa, which controls electricity distribution in this country, and led the battle against privatizing the water utility.
Our first lessons in ENACALWe quickly learned during our first year in ENACAL that you can’t get anything done in a government institution if you don’t know it inside and out. It’s fundamental to work out what the institution is, what it’s like and how it works, and use that knowledge to establish a strategy and a course to follow. Just as fundamental is telling people what’s going on inside the institution, informing them and never lying to them. For that reason we developed an open-door communication policy in the institution. In the Water Forum we organized in March 2007, we printed the first run of ABC del Agua, to explain to the population the shape ENACAL was in when we took over.
We also learned that a public enterprise can be run diligently and transparently, and that structural changes can be made to ensure that this government and all those to come, whatever their political stripe, won’t be able to touch what belongs to the people and to guarantee the functioning of the public enterprise.
What we found when we arrivedWhen we started going through ENACAL’s files, we discovered something we already strongly suspected: the previous administration’s only strategy was to privatize the water service. Every document we found referred to the objective of selling off ENACAL “in pieces.” In fact, that had begun to be done in Jinotega and Matagalpa, with the argument that the utility was running a deficit and wasn’t functioning. Turning this process around was one of our first tasks. At the same time, we opened a debate about the need for the municipal governments to take responsibility for the water problems and let them and their populations find solutions through local power.
We uncovered serious inconsistencies as well. Ruth had been studying ENACAL for five years and obtained information on the project to “modernize” ENACAL with a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank that was begun during the Bolaños government. It was an US$11 million project and by the time we came on the scene US$8 million had already been executed, but there was nothing to show for it. Nothing! They didn’t even leave the project’s trucks or computers. We managed to redirect the unexecuted money to ensure the emergency plan implemented in early 2007—when many Managua barrios had no water and it had to be brought in for the population—and to start the construction of water systems in five Managua barrios that didn’t even have wells.
The neoliberal governmentsWe also quickly realized that there had been no political will to resolve problems or provide an answer to people’s demands. We found sacks and sacks of projects sent in by people clamoring for water service, just tossed on the floor. Projects of all kinds had been sent from all over Nicaragua, for example about a well supplying a thousand people in Chinandega’s El Calvario barrio that had caved in. That well was over thirty years old, and when it collapsed all those people were left without water. So we drilled another well for them, and in the process learned that it’s easier and cheaper to make wells in the northwest [León and Chinandega], because of the type of soil and the water’s closeness to the surface.
were deaf to people’s needs
From the beginning we tried to resolve the most urgent cases. The neoliberal administrations had been deaf to people’s needs. The only thing they worked on was privatization and the kick-backs the top officials would get if they pulled it off quickly.
ENACAL was simply seen as a company that distributed water and provided the sanitation service. The new strategy is redefining ENACAL’s function. The idea is to consolidate the enterprise and make whatever changes are needed to guarantee that all the people forgotten by the system have access to water, an absolutely vital resource. In Managua alone, 30 barrios have no water system at all and people have to buy water at 30 to 50 córdobas a barrel. People go after each other with a machete for a barrel of water! And if that happens in the capital, just imagine the situation in rural areas, where people go by mule in search of a little water or to get to a water system that UNICEF or some church built. Now most of the water systems are built by FISE [Emergency Social Investment Fund], which gets funding for this kind of rural project, although by law it’s ENACAL’s responsibility to review the quality of the water provided, to see if it’s drinkable or not. The quality depends on the physical conditions, the water’s chemical and biological characteristics, whether it has dissolved minerals or bacteria, its pH… Analyzing all that is ENACAL’s job.
Disinterest, laziness… and corruptionA full 50% of the water for Managua—and I’m talking about quality water—is lost due to breakdowns in the system. We found ENACAL’s network of wells neglected and many of the wells closed. Some only had small problems. For example, the well of Colonia Nicarao in Managua only needed a repair to the pumping equipment’s electrical system. But ENACAL never repaired it. There was an absurd level of indolence; so many things that could have been done and never were.
And there was corruption. For example, Luis Debayle, ENACAL’s executive director during the Bolaños government, diverted an ENACAL well project for the Camilo Ortega barrio—a poor neighborhood with thousands of people and thousands of problems—to the luxury condominium where he lives. He tried to do the same thing with a well earmarked for Las Viudas in Jocote Dulce, which he wanted installed on a relative’s land. But in that case the community got feisty and managed to stop him.
We inherited a bankrupt operationWe also confirmed something else we had suspected: that the business was broke, with 300 million córdobas in debts. The annual budget the National Assembly approves for ENACAL is minimal. Its average monthly expenses total about 65 million córdobas, of which 25-30 million go to the payroll of the company’s 3,500 workers throughout the country. The other half or so is eaten up by electricity costs, which are rising both because the rates have gone up and because ENACAL has opened new water systems and installed new pumps. That leaves us nothing for investments, even though water is, or should be, the number one priority.
ENACAL’s user arrears are gigantic. People don’t pay their water bills. We haven’t been educated to assume our responsibility to pay for water. We pay for cell phones, Internet, cable TV, beers on the weekend… but we don’t pay for the water we use. And water’s cheap. What ENACAL receives in water service charges isn’t enough to mount big projects; it can’t invest. ENACAL needs a major economic injection. The government has shown great concern for the Zero Hunger program, and that’s wonderful because many people are dying of hunger in Nicaragua. But water is even more basic to health, to life itself. So why not a Zero Thirst program?
ENACAL’s investment capacity is very limited. Most of the investment projects are financed by international cooperation. There are joint projects for both drinking water and sanitation, such as the sanitation service in Managua’s Sierra Maestra barrio, where the community organized and sought support from the Japanese Embassy. ENACAL provided the retro-excavator, part of the pipes, the supervising engineers and some field workers, while the Embassy contributed part of the financial resources.
And we found mountains of bureaucracyENACAL was the first government company to slash the mega-salaries and reduce the bureaucracy—there had been tons of vice managers and different divisions. Also, there are engineers who’ve been working in ENACAL for 24 years, and that creates embedded routines.
But you can’t eliminate bureaucracy overnight. We had to make 300 personnel changes in ENACAL, at a high cost to the company’s image. One of the first goals was to correct administrative errors. This savings policy allowed us to do some small projects the first year. We in the executive team believe that ENACAL can achieve economic stability within two years if it continues with that savings policy and improves its collection, and if people are educated, informed about the value of water and embrace that knowledge.
We need a new culture of waterAs early as February 2007, only a month after the change of government, Ruth Herrera put this idea to President Ortega: “To construct and develop a culture of water, we have to establish inter-institutional alliances so that the sanitary and environmental education processes are accompanied by the formation of healthy life habits. This new culture of water will be key to achieving economic development and making the struggle against hunger and poverty effective. Including organized society in managing water will not only put a brake on the abusive uses of water, but will also be a point of agreement in democratic and participatory management, given that it’s an issue that unites the most diverse sectors of society. It’s a factor of alliances.”
She also wrote that “the starting point must be that the participation of the Councils of Citizen’s Power (CPCs) include comprehensive distribution of any tasks they might develop regarding water resource management. In addition, there’s a need to recognize the existence of diverse social organizations, such as the Water Committees, user and consumer organizations, community committees, etc. that could be directly linked to the tasks related to preserving and responsibly administering the water sources. The govern-ment’s success will depend not only on defining an appropriate water management strategy or articulating a discourse on water as a human right that concerns us all, but on getting citizens to change their attitude and behavior, making responsible use of that vital resource.” It was like a discussion draft. No one had done such a thing before.
Excluding people makes the process hardDiscussing it hasn’t proved easy. Achieving what we proposed in that draft implies a whole process, and seeing it through to the end is tantamount to bringing about a revolution. But the government is determined to recognize the CPCs as the only organized expression of the people. And that viewpoint, which excludes so many other people, makes the process hard.
I’m all in favor of organization. Out in the municipalities, people began to organize in Municipal Development Committees (CDMs). I have no problem with the CPCs, or CPUs or CPAs or CPQs or whatever they’re called. The important thing is that people organize. For example, the CPCs of Laureles Sur got their water system because these poor, totally forgotten people organized. They spent ten years demanding it but as ENACAL doesn’t have enough squads of workers to do the projects rapidly, the residents of that barrio knuckled down and dug the ditches themselves. The municipal government drilled the well and ENCACAL installed the pipe network and all the pumping equipment. The work of those CPCs was magnificent, but there are others that just go around sniffing out public posts, or whose leaders are only looking to feather their own family’s nest, following the pattern promoted by the President.
Given so many problems, I felt limitations in my work. There was no coherence between the presidency’s communication strategy and ours. I never got to meet with the presidency’s secretary of communication and citizenry [First Lady Rosario Murillo], or even with the other state institutions’ communication directors. Nor was there any inter-institutional communication, which is fundamental to installing a culture of water among the public. For example, during ENACAL’s initiative to clean the Rocas Morenas reservoir, which is Camoapa’s only water source, there was extraordinary participation from young people. But we in ENACAL had to fight tooth and nail with the Army to get the military out of their barracks to go support that civic action.
Educate to maintain the Education was an indispensable component of the water strategy ENACAL presented to the government, so throughout 2007 we gave talks to educate people in the barrios because it’s not enough for them to get their water system; they also have to organize to maintain it and look after the network of pipes. For example, once we had installed the aqueduct and pipes in Los Laureles Sur and were doing tests to check the water pressure before installing the household connections, people were so desperate they took a machete to the pipes. It was a question of lack of education. Everything had to be repaired, which took more time! But in the end 10,600 people benefited. You can’t imagine the joy of the kids, the women… particularly the women, who suffer most when there’s no water in the houses.
service and use water wisely
We also have to educate to put an end to another problem we have: the culture of waste. We only think about the water we consume, not about the part we squander.
No respect for our surroundingsAnother big problem is that we’re dirty. One of the things I’m proudest of in relation to the work we did in ENACAL—and it’s still being done—is the clean-up campaigns we promoted. But it was such hard work! For example, we spent a whole year organizing some 500 kids from the Ramírez Goyena and Manuel Olivares schools and from the Aldeas SOS to clean up around the Asososca Reservoir, Managua’s only source of surface water. Asososca has some of Nicaragua’s best water; its quality is as good as that of the water systems in mountainous Jinotega, which is excellent. Between 14% and 20% of the water we pump for the capital’s residents comes from Asososca.
Yet the area around it was a regular garbage dump. Mountains of garbage, old tires, all kinds of filth… And right alongside was a sand bank where truckfuls of sand were taken out every day, to the point that they were reaching the reservoir’s natural walls. It was such an irrational exploitation that you could only wonder how it was ever permitted. We finally got the sand bank closed, then spent a year cleaning and reforesting, planting nearly 20,000 saplings. Then we made the Quetzalcoatl Water Park, which turned out really beautiful!
Okay, so on December 13 I went to do a feature report on how everything had been cleaned up and I was met with an incredibly sad surprise. People had broken the chain link fence and cut down trees, and again we found mounds of garbage everywhere—plastic bags, bottles, everything, all the way to the entrance to the park. We had to start all over again. In this case the problem was coordination with the Managua mayor’s office.
If Nicaragua’s water coverage is inadequate…ENACAL is responsible for supplying 55% of the water consumed nationally. The current drinking water infrastructure consists of 451 wells in urban areas and 15 filtering galleries, but that can only supply half a million people, and there are more than 5 million of us. ENACAL’s target in this five-year government term is to deliver drinking water to a million more people. In the urban areas, we cover 77% of households, but poorly, because in many places there are daily water cuts. Some 45% of the connections are in bad shape or aren’t metered, meaning that over half the water we pump is lost due to technical leaks or isn’t paid for.
In rural areas we barely cover 31% of the households. The network of rural wells wasn’t maintained for over ten years nor was the water quality checked. We calculate that there are over 5,000 local water systems supplying small communities in the countryside. Between 73% and 90% of the water we supply comes from subterranean sources. The use of water for irrigation is concentrated in the Pacific zone, and we estimate that irrigating roughly 75,000 hectares uses 30% of the underground water potential and 15% of the superficial water.
…its sanitation supply is patheticThe United Nations Development Program (UNDP) designated 2008 as the Year of Sanitation. In its report, UNDP quotes Victor Hugo in Les Miserables as saying that “The sewer is the conscience of the city.” While Hugo was describing 19th-century Paris, UNDP stresses that sanitation is still an important indicator of a community’s human development. In our case that indicator is pretty pathetic. Only 29 of Nicaragua’s cities have a sewage system and even in Managua not all neighborhoods are covered. A full 66% of the country’s urban population lacks any sanitation service. All this information and much more is available in El ABC del Agua, the ENACAL booklet published with support from the UNDP and Pan American Health Organization.
A sewage treatment plant will be inaugurated in Managua in 2008 so we can start decontaminating Lake Xolotlán. It’s an inherited project, and at US$80 million is the largest one ENACAL is executing. A pending problem is that the original plan included no environmental study of the whole Lake Xolotlán watershed. Only the shores of the lake were studied, 17 kilometers of which are totally contaminated because all the sewage in Managua flowed straight into the lake for decades. Completely cleaning the lake, which has an area of just over a thousand square kilometers, requires a strategy for the lake’s entire watershed.
Where will tomorrow’s water come from?The main problem we found in ENACAL was that the country’s principal water sources had already dried up. The main cause was irrational, uncontrolled deforestation, largely to create pastureland for grazing cattle. And the worst part is that after such barbarity, Nicaragua has one of the lowest cattle ranching productivity rates in the world: each cow requires nearly 1.5 hectares of pastureland!
The UNDP’s 2003 Report was already warning of a 30% drop in the amount of water available in the world in the next two decades. In the future, human beings will be drinking sea water. There’s a long way to go in technological terms for this to happen in Nicaragua, so meanwhile we’ll be drinking water from Lake Cocibolca, Central America’s largest water source at 8,000 square kilometers. The water from Cocibolca is Nicaragua’s strategic solution—if we can decontaminate and learn to take care of it.
The first city to begin consuming water from Cocibolca will be Juigalpa, starting in 2009. The pipes are already being laid and some 67,000 people will benefit. Juigalpa took its water from the Río Pirre before it dried up, and we’re hoping the population will become aware of that disaster and reforest its banks, because it’s not enough to use Cocibolca to resolve problems we ourselves have created by such disregard for nature.
The population in Juigalpa and all of Nicaragua has to become informed, become aware, act. People have to make ENACAL their own. That’s the only way out. We have to find out where the water in our sector comes from, where it could come from if we end up without enough. We have to know whether digging a well is more costly than bringing it from a superficial source. We‘ve behaved very badly with nature. It’s not about raising green banners out of romanticism or because it’s the cool thing to do. We have to change our ways.
Decontaminating Lake Cocibolca is one of the major priorities. Its waters have been irrationally poisoned for decades. All kinds of agrochemicals, waste from the tanneries and sewage from the 36 municipalities around its shores have always made their way into its water, not to mention the most recent damage caused by the release of non-native tilapia fish into the lake. We’ve already sanctioned Granada’s tanneries and there’s now a government project with the German agency KFW to ensure treatment of that city’s sewage.
Private appropriation of public waterA more recent problem has been created by the fancy new housing developments going up south of Managua. A study done by the Japanese recommended that no more such projects be built in that area because it’s precisely where Managua’s biggest water table is located. Regrettably—or cleverly, fully aware of what they were doing—the capital’s wealthiest sectors have built most of their new houses there and are digging private wells.
We’ve started taking measures, including an effort to educate the urban developers, in which ENACAL is joining forces with the Managua municipal government and the Environment and Natural Resource Ministry to get them to improve the water systems they install. At first they built septic tanks with inadequate structures that quickly started contaminating the water table. We told them they had to change them and announced fines for those who don’t provide maintenance to their private wells. We’re also going to start charging people with private wells for the water they use. It’s unacceptable for them to exploit the water table without paying a cent.
There’s no order now; anybody can sink a well: a hotel, a casino, a restaurant, a maquiladora…; it’s total chaos! Managua is turning into a giant pincushion, and it’s an earthquake zone! And on top of that, nobody with a private well pays anything! Coca Cola, the brewery, the bottled water companies… none of them pays a cent for the water that produces so much income for them. The number of private wells today is more than the total 461 wells ENACAL attends at a national level.
Institutionalizing the importance of waterA very relevant event during our first year in ENACAL was the approval of the General National Waters Law, which had spent several years gathering dust in a drawer. Article 13 of that law says: “Water is a strategic resource for the economic and social development of the country. The water situation is a national priority issue and its use, efficient exploitation and quality, as well as actions to protect against flooding and drought, are necessary conditions to sustainably maintain economic and social development and guarantee basic supply to this and future generations.”
The next step is to create the Water Authority, a decision that’s inexplicably being delayed. The Councils of Citizens’ Power and all the other expressions of civic participation must participate in this Water Authority. ENACAL will have a very important position within it and is ready to continue creating greater consciousness among the population.
Nicaragua shouldn’t be thirsty. It’s a country blessed by an abundance of water. Almost 15% of Nicaragua’s surface is made up of lakes, rivers and crater lakes. Cocibolca and Xolotlán alone occupy nearly 10% of the national territory. The law insists on responsibility: “Water is a natural resource that must be protected and responsibly administered. Its permanent and continual access is a right intrinsically linked to life. Providing it to people represents a maximum national priority.”
We all have a responsibilityAdministering and protecting the water isn’t ENACAL’s responsibility alone. Everyone is responsible. Only when we understand that and all assume that responsibility can we rest assured we won’t die of thirst.
Journalist Azucena Castillo López was the spokesperson for and communication director of the Nicaraguan Water and Sanitation Company (ENACAL) during the first year of the new government. She is now the Sandinista Renovation Movement’s candidate for deputy mayor of Managua.