Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 347 | Junio 2010



The Rural CAPS: Ensuring Community Access to Water

Community drinking water and sanitation committees can be found in virtually every corner of rural Nicaragua, taking charge of ensuring the most basic element required for life. They organize collectively and make truly democratic collective decisions in the search for solutions to a constant and fundamental problem. They go about their business quietly, but they are no less important for that. They are the CAPS.

Rosibel Kreimann

There’s a protest going on nearby, in Ticuantepe, that’s got something to do with water,” I told my mother in July 2005. “I’m going to check it out.” I had no idea that such an apparently insignificant decision would lead me on a great personal and professional adventure exploring the life of people with a limited water supply in many parts of Nicaragua, places where women and children dedicate hours and hours every day to the arduous work of lugging water over long distances.

During that experience I came to understand something we don’t always realize: access to water is both a technical and a social-political challenge. Above all, I discovered an extraordinary initiative: the drinking water and sanitation committees (CAPS). For five years I was involved in studies and research in which those four letters would be a constant in my day-to-day language.

The people who make up the CAPS have been waging an exemplary fight from below for over 30 years now to ensure that there’s no lack of water, and thus of life, in their rural communities.

Water to over a million
thirsty Nicaraguans...

In a dirt-floored house in Matagalpa a small, brown-skinned woman with a commanding personality and voice, summed up the CAPS for me: “Look, our drinking water committees benefit over a million Nicaraguans with the water we administer. We, the inhabitants, have found our own solutions!”

Nicaragua has the most water in its territory of any Central American country. It has 21 basins, 85 rivers (totaling 6,695 km in length), 47 volcanic crater lakes and 2 big lakes (covering a surface area of 10,033 km2). Water covers 7.7% of Nicaragua’s surface. But we don’t respect this wealth, allowing significant deterioration: the surface waters are contaminated by domestic and industrial waste and the watersheds are seriously deforested. These are the two main problems affecting Nicaragua’s water, but the situation is further complicated by the irregular distribution of rainfall in the country. Although the average annual rainfall is over 2,000 millimeters, it is less than 800 millimeters in the traditionally very dry zones.

The uneven rainfall and deficient water management explain our serious supply problems. Only 63.9% of Nicaraguans receive drinking water inside their house, just by opening a tap, and only 31.8% of this percentage lives in rural areas. It is in this panorama of rural scarcity that the CAPS emerged as lead actors with possible solutions to people’s most pressing need. Some 5,100 CAPS supply water to 1.2 million Nicaraguans living in rural zones where the State has hardly any presence at all.

...and 10 million thirsty
Central Americans

In Nicaragua’s rural areas, the 60% of people who don’t have water supplied have to haul it from rivers or dig wells. And with rivers and wells drying up, these efforts are becoming more and more arduous. Finding water sources with a deep enough flow is hard, and finding safe ones is even harder given all the contamination from both human causes such as industry and coffee crop waste and natural ones like the arsenic found in volcanic zones. The task of the CAPS, then, is to find water from surface sources or wells. The most valuable aspect of their effort is that the water they find is for the whole community. They join forces, time, labor and tools to look for water, channel it and install pipes that sometimes cover kilometers.

These community water systems supply 20,000 rural communities—25% of the Central American population, or around 10 million people—with the water they drink, cook and wash with or use to water crops and animals. Although there are no official figures, Central Americas has an estimated 24,000 “water boards”—they have different names in each country but work with the same logic and structure. There are 10,000 in Guatemala, 5,000 in Honduras, 219 in El Salvador, 2,000 in Costa Rica and 1,505 in Panama. As mentioned above, Nicaragua has 5,100, mainly in communities in the country’s Pacific region, although some are located on the edges of the agricultural frontier. In Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast region, with its abundance of rivers, brooks and other sources of superficial water, there’s not such a pressing need to open wells.

All of these initiatives were born of government plans or were part of projects developed by international cooperation, which looked to community organization as a way of providing interested allies to increase potable water coverage in rural areas. The relationship between these groups and the State varies, ranging from almost total autonomy in Guatemala and El Salvador to almost total control and institutional dependency in Costa Rica. Often, “institutionalizing,” while allowing access to funding and technical assistance, has led to a loss of autonomy.

“Many died without
ever seeing water here”

Where did the thousands of CAPS operating in Nicaragua come from? In numerous accounts, people mentioned the agrarian reform promoted by the Sandinista revolution in the eighties as a historic reference point when recalling how they got started. The transformation of land tenure and the distribution of land to cooperatives influenced the creation of the first CAPS, because having land implies a need for water to make it produce. Over the years religious groups and NGOs have been an influence by forming leaders at the service of their communities. And if leadership is built by seeing to the basics, what could be more basic than supplying water to the community?

Sitting at a desk we took out of the local school—the only community space in El Edén, a community in the municipality of Ticuantepe with a backdrop of mountains and pineapple fields—Adán Silva, a 70-year-old whose sun-scorched face is furrowed by wrinkles, tells me that he’s responsible for repairing the PVC pipes in the community-built water system. He goes on to explain that despite all the effort they had to put in, “the river doesn’t give us enough water for the whole population every day. So we provide it every other day by sector. Of course people would like to have water day and night, but we explain to them that we have to ration it so we can all receive it.” Some CAPS members call this rationing “shifts.”

Despite this limitation, Silva enthusiastically recalls the day water finally came to his community: “It was a pretty big deal when the water came. I remember we did the first test on a Friday at 4 in the afternoon. Everyone was there, lots of people, a bunch of kids, all to look at that strong stream of water! The people were still there at one in the morning; I’m not kidding you. It was like a spell, such excitement and joy. A lot of old folks had died without ever seeing the day of having water there...”

A lot of forthing and backing
in water management institutions

The first CAPS were created in Nicaragua in the eighties, in the heat of the revolutionary changes. They were supported by the National Water and Sewerage Institute (INAA), which made agreements with different cooperation organizations, and put community leaders in charge.

With the end of the revolution and the establishment of the International Monetary Fund’s economic measures, Nicaragua took the first steps to privatize the public water supply service. Up until then INAA had been the ministerial-rank institution responsible for both providing and regulating the service. But in 1998 the government created the Nicaraguan Water and Sewerage Company (ENACAL) to provide the service, leaving INAA as the regulatory body.

A Rural Water Management division called GAR was created within ENACAL to work at the local level through Operations and Maintenance Units (UNOMs) in the municipal governments. ENACAL-GAR was responsible for supporting the work of the CAPS, but didn’t cover all of them; in practice they continued to function as autonomous organizations. Then in 2004 some ENACAL functions were transferred to the Emergency Social Investment Fund (FISE), which was put in charge of rural water supply systems. This continual, albeit slow transfer of capacities from one institution to another reduced state support to the CAPS to a minimum.

Meanwhile, in 2001, the government of Enrique Bolaños made moves to privatize Hidrogesa, one of the country’s two most important hydroelectric plants, and grant a concession for a private company to administer ENACAL. But the mobilization of different environmental and development NGOs, allied with civil society organiza¬tions and municipal governments, stopped both objectives in their tracks. The arrival of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in government in 2007 put an end to these privatization efforts.

Two legal steps, two accomplishments

Water legislation was discussed between 2005 and 2007, and finally approved by the National Assembly in 2007. The Waters Law represents an important first reference point for legally organizing everything to do with water resources on the national level. But despite this important legal advance, the National Water Authority still hasn’t been elected and no budget has been assigned to it. The Waters Law didn’t mention the CAPS as actors working in the sector, although its regulatory law does thanks to successful pressure from the National CAPS Network.

Another step forward was taken on May 19 of this year. Despite the parliamentary crisis between the government and the opposition, the National Assembly finally passed the Special Drinking Water and Sanitation Committees Law, which had been pushed for years by the National CAPS Network through an ultimately successful combination of pressuring, lobbying and convincing.

For the moment, the new laws and functions of the different institutions continue to exist with no common authority, each with its own regulations and particular style. INAA, which should regulate the whole sector, has neither the economic capacity nor the human resources to do so. For example, it only has two people to attend to the CAPS in the whole country. Specifically speaking, what now exists is a mishmash of unclarified competencies. The recent approval of the CAPS law during the current FSLN government is another important advance, although in practice this government hasn’t shown any signs of wanting to guarantee financing for the CAPS or their institutional strengthening and hasn’t invested in the water distribution systems established by the communities.

Public recognition of the CAPS’ work has depended—and still does—on lobbying by national and international NGOs that support their work and on the effort put in by the CAPS themselves, which have gone through an interesting political learning process over the last 30 years. It is to be hoped that recognition derived from approval of the Special CAPS Law will trigger government backing of the work these committees perform and the channeling of national and international funds to them.

“We’re finally legal!”

The Special Law recognizes the CAPS as “nonprofit organizations,” providing them statutes that allow them to create a national executive council, access financing and enjoy municipal tax exonerations on the projects they implement.

Silvio Prado of the Center for Political Studies and Analysis, who researches organizational experiences in Nicaragua, values the importance of the discussion of both the Waters Law and the CAPS Law in the National CAPS Network. “They produced 2,000 copies of the bills and sent them to the municipalities. When they arrived, the people sat down to read them then made their suggestions. The CAPS started to take shape as a real body in this process… These two laws, one after the other, allowed the CAPS to sink roots, diversify their contacts and strengthen the capacity for discussion around something concrete. The laws were their banners, which they grabbed hold of and used to make a forceful entry into the field of political advocacy. These two laws have enabled the CAPS to be what they are now with respect to advocacy.”

Beyond laws, the CAPS have depended for a long time on personal negotiations to access water sources. During these negotiations, landowners either accept the CAPS’ proposal or impose their own point of view. Up until now, even with no legal framework, the CAPS have been able to manage their water systems successfully. Now their security is increased, as is their autonomy to independently negotiate funding with international cooperation. As Esperanza put it with real satisfaction, “Up to now we’ve worked de facto, without any legal backing. Now we’re finally legal!”

Building participatory democracy

A CAPS is made up of a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, monitor and, occasionally, a maintenance person. Depending on the territory, possible links with an NGO and the training they have received, they may also include members responsible for the environment and gender.

The president basically coordinates the actions and calls the other members to meetings, while the vice president stands in for the president if necessary. The treasurer controls the monthly income and expenses and presents an annual report. The secretary takes minutes of the meetings and agreements, while the monitor liaises with NGOs and the government and invites the local population to the community assemblies.

Are the CAPS democratic? Being so many in number and so diverse, it isn’t easy to observe uniform tendencies. The CAPS members are elected by the community and generally speaking don’t charge for their work. The sum the population pays for its water service is ploughed back into maintaining the system, repairing pipes, buying materials… And though there are problems of dominating local leaders, board members who spend years in the same posts and even less than transparent money management, everything is resolved within the community, which can change those members who don’t fulfill their duties and, at least theoretically, can establish more rigid water use standards.

In the CAPS, decisions on building the water distribution system, what the monthly rate will be and how it will be collected, who will be on the CAPS and how long their term will be (the members are generally elected every two years), and sanctions against people who waste water are discussed on the community level. In this sense, there are elements that point towards real participatory democracy, including collective and community decision-making, election of the committees, establishment of norms and assigning of responsibilities. These practices seem to have empowered the communities.

“I’ve never seen a man hauling water!”

Often the physical effort and time women and children invest in hauling water every day isn’t reflected, in that women participate more actively in the CAPS but aren’t always the ones who make the decisions. Near the stove where she was cooking beans, Esperanza, who like so many rural women is small but has a confident look, talked to me about her experience as a leader in her Matagalpa community, waving a copy of a document about the water committees in her hand: “We women are the ones who really feel the problem with water here. I’ve never seen a man hauling water. Never! We look beyond the need and how to resolve it. I’ve been insisting that there should be more women than men on the National Water Committee… or at least the same number! There are only three women here in the water network.”

Thirty-four-year-old Cristina, a small, stout woman, talked measuredly, sitting in front of her house beside a dirt track. She used to live in the countryside, but now lives on the outskirts of Managua, where there’s also a CAPS. “In the assemblies,” she said, “the women participate more. In the last election of our CAPS, most of the 54 people who came were women. Who knows why, but men seem to like this work less.”

Don Lino from Ticuantepe:
The legitimacy of the CAPS

A CAPS is born to manage the water supply systems the community takes responsibility for building. The materials to build them are generally financed by outside organizations, while the community contributes the labor and time. If the conditions of the terrain allow it, the most common systems are gravity-powered or wells. Other common systems are those powered by electric pumps. In all cases, the community is in charge of clearing the land and digging the ditches for the pipes, using pick axes and spades. Each family is assigned a length of the ditch, but if a family has only old people and children some neighbors will take on their quota.

Once the system is installed, the rate charged by the CAPS depends on the kind of system used and the number of people it supplies. A gravity-powered water system might involve charges of 10-15 córdobas ($0.50-$0.75 cents) a month, while a system employing an electric pump could cost users some 30-50 córdobas ($1.50-$2.50). The rates are always consulted with the community, establishing payment arrangements or allowing those who can’t work to pay through voluntary labor. The inhabitants also contribute voluntary labor to repair the system when required.

Isaías has a kind-hearted, square face and a small moustache. He sells pineapples at the market and is a member of the Ticuantepe CAPS. He told me about initiatives to increase the resources available to the CAPSs. “We raffle half a quintal of rice, a container of oil and a case of soap every six months or a year, and anyone up to date with their payments can take part. It was our committee’s idea, to encourage people to get up to date with their payments. People who are behind can’t participate in the raffle… Well, the thing worked!”

Don Lino spent many years as the Ticuantepe municipal government’s liaison person, known as the “alcaldito” (little mayor) in his community, which gave him both confidence and lots of training. As he confided in me, “In this job we’ve shared ideas with both the committee and the community as a whole, and we’ve been told we’re doing very well. Our best results here have been with the school and the cemetery and with the organizing we’ve done to supply the water, alternating its supply, rationing it.”

Don Lino died a couple of years after telling me of his experiences, but right up to the end he was negotiating with the municipal government to get it to invest in more pipes to bring water from another source. He represents the legitimacy of the CAPS, which lies in community and voluntary efforts rather than legal or institutional formalities.

The challenges ahead

All of the CAPS I interviewed across Nicaragua talked proudly about their experiences but also discussed the difficulties they face. The water management challenges they face are on different levels: technical-administrative, organizational-institutional and environmental.

On the technical-administrative level they have to deal with water systems that soon become obsolete and have to replaced, extended or rebuilt. Inadequate technologies, adverse geographical areas, such as dry zones or those where it is very difficult to sink wells or that have contaminated waters, are all challenges to their efforts. Establishing appropriate and viable rates and keeping accounts are also challenging.

On the organizational-institutional level, the CAPS have long been grappling with the challenges of lacking the legal and institutional backing that would guarantee security in their administration. Will this change with the new law recognizing them? Up to now they’ve lacked access to needed information, as there is no representative or technician from INAA, ENACAL or any other entity in the municipalities that could support them by providing at no cost the information they need to manage their water well.

“That’s no way to do it”

Despite the numerous reforms to its legal framework and structure, the drinking water and sanitation sector has found it difficult to delimit functions among the different actors, particularly between the regulatory entities and the public and private executors. The passing of time and the identifying of difficulties, added to the reforms imposed by the IMF and by the loans from multilateral institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank, have led to the creation of new structures and commissions on top of old ones, eliminating none. All this has made the system increasingly complicated.

Article 24 of the new Waters Law establishes that the National Water Authority “will have technical-regulatory, technical-operational, control and follow-up faculties to manage, operate and administer hydric resources in the national sphere.” Will this delimit the function of the sector’s institutions? Until it happens, what the UNICEF water sector head confided to me during an interview in 2009 will remain true: “The problem is the political impasse that creates a lack of clarity of functions. So there’s no institutional security to develop any work.”

Where to lay the pipes?

The lack of official recognition and legal security has created problems for the CAPS. The insecurity is related to free access to water sources, property rights on lands through which the systems they build must pass, and the requirements for opening bank accounts and thus obtaining equipment in the name of the community organization.

A pending debate is how to legally back the work of these water committees according to their capacities and needs. “Many CAPS aren’t legal given the property problems,” I was told by Florentín from a CAPS in Matagalpa, “and that’s a problem. In our case, we’ve been affected because the water sources are on private properties. The pipes from our system pass through eight different properties and we’ve had problems with the owners, who don’t want to let us through with our pipes.”

Sitting at a long table in the yard of the self-built office of a Granada CAPS, several men with faces burnt by the sun complained of the limitations their efforts run up against. As one explained to me, “There are no institutions working on water issues or information to help us. There used to be an ENACAL office in Granada that worked on rural water systems, but it disappeared over time. They even removed the office where we used to go ask for technical advice or anything else we needed. For a while they supported us or took needed steps to support us, but then that all waned and disappeared.”

“The authorities are kind of jealous”

A new challenge for the CAPS is the top-down system of citizens’ participation implemented by the governing party, in which instruction coming from the presidency is prioritized and obeyed. In certain areas this generates competition between these Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPCs) and the CAPS. The water committees have never been linked to any political party and this autonomy has been one of their advantages because it has provided them community credibility and legitimacy.

Pablo, a member of both a CAPS and a CPC in León experiences contradictions between the two identities. “Many organizations see the CPCs as political and don’t support anything political,” he explained to me. “There are community leaders who say they’re from the Cabinet of Citizen’s Power who get no response when they go to organizations asking for some project. It’s obvious that it’s because the CPCs are seen as political. They’ve heard me representing the water committee, as a community leader, more than representing the CPC.

Donald, a tall, grey-haired CAPS member in his early 50s talked to me in a Matagalpa street. “What I’ve seen,” he said, “is that the authorities are kind of jealous. We’ve been advocating the formation of municipal networks, because that helps the municipality and because projects come to you through organizations. But if you talk about this to the municipal governments, they assume you’re with some organization in the Civil Coordinator and immediately view you as if you’re against the government.”

The environmental challenges are enormous

A sustainably healthy environment is the only thing that can guarantee permanent access to water. Deforestation, contamination, drought and growing populations in the territories are four big challenges.

The CAPS do environmental work in their local area, including reforesting areas adjoining the water sources. They also save water, avoid squandering it and reuse household water to water crops. The priority is always human consumption.

Municipalities like the ones in Estelí are starting to pay for environmental services in alliance with the CAPS and cooperatives, using economic incentives in an effort to end deforestation and the bad use of water sources. There’s a close relationship between the CAPS and the environmental equilibrium of water, given that lack of water affects their raison d’être. For that reason, the surveillance developed by the CAPS members and their community tends to be effective.

Is water a human right or a commodity?

Water is essential for survival, for producing food, for health and for any development project. But it’s increasingly scarce. According to projections, almost 3 billion people from 48 countries will be experiencing water shortages by 2025. A fifth of the world population already suffers from a lack of water and 5 million people die every year because the water they drink is contaminated.

Is water a human right or a commodity? The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees all people the right to a standard of living appropriate to their health and welfare. But not until 2002 did the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognize the right to water as a specific human right. A total of 145 countries, including Nicaragua, have ratified the pact obliging them to ensure that the whole of their population has equitable and nondiscriminatory access to safe drinking water and to sanitation installations.

In the mercantilist model we live in, many economists oppose this human right, sustaining that the right to use water must be commercializable. If that were the case, if the right to own water existed, what would happen to people with the fewest resources and aren’t connected to the supply network? Privatization is anti-ethical because it’s economically and socially excluding. The vision of the right to water represents a critique of the neoliberal logic of targeted policies, which conceive of and treat the population as clients and consumers rather than citizens. The State’s withdrawal from rural areas in Nicaragua follows that conception, which prioritizes supplying water to urban areas where providing the service is more economically profitable.

Water management systems
based on water as a common good

In rural and marginalized areas all over the world, all kinds of strategies have been developed to access water in response to the reduction of the State and the effects of climate change. All are based on community water management.

As Maude Barlow explains, “Across the world, local sustainable systems that manage water as a common good evolve and pass from one generation to the next. The investment this involves is the arduous work of people who know that a healthy water ecosystem means life. Ignorance of local conditions and lack of respect for local knowledge have been one of the causes of failure of many mega-engineering water systems imposed from outside. In many communities in the world, traditional local water protection and assignment practices are currently being reevaluated. In certain areas, the local population has assumed the whole responsibility for water distribution installations and have created funds to which the users must contribute.”

A Nobel Prize for the CAPS

In the last decade, ecological movement leaders and different environmental specialists have studied the problem of equitable access to water distribution from the perspective of water as a common good. The interest this notion has awakened is reflected in the recognition of one of its main exponents, Elinor Ostrom, who received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences this year. This 75-year-old US scientist has dedicated her life to researching community management of watering systems, pasture land and forests in different parts of the world, including the Philippines, Japan, Mexico, Spain and the United States.

Ostrom is the first woman to receive the prize in the area of economics and her proposal is the first one to be recognized that has such profound political significance as vindicating poor and excluded communities as stakeholders that must be prioritized in water management strategies everywhere. She argues that neither the state nor the market necessarily need to be involved in managing water and other basic resources to achieve good use that doesn’t lead to overexploitation. She demonstrates that local communities are the most capable of building and developing common standards to achieve sustainable use of what she highlights as “shared resources.”

Awarding the Nobel Prize to this woman is like awarding it to the CAPSs in Nicaragua, which have been rescuing the community’s right to water and managing water distribution in places where there’s no State or market to do so. They do an uncommonly good job. And they do it for the common good.

Rosibel Kreimann is a sociologist and social researcher.

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