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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 397 | Agosto 2014
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How much longer will the country’s water last?

This former executive president of ENACAL, the national water and sanitation utility, paints a bleak picture of today’s critical situation with Nicaragua’s water resources.

Ruth Selma Herrera

Although the issue of water is essential and understanding the problems it presents involves a certain complexity, virtually no one seems to want to spend even a couple of hours thinking about this vital service. People generally only get worried when suddenly they don’t have it and farmers only express concern when there’s little rain, but hardly anybody looks into the causes. Nonetheless, experience tells us that addressing all the issues related to water helps sensitize the population; it’s particularly useful to do educational work with young people.

It’s also an important issue that anyone who wants to govern a country should know about. The water sector has been the Cinderella of public investments in Nicaragua. We haven’t had a single government that has grasped the appropriate dimensions of the water problem, much less one that prioritizes it in its administration. And that’s a tragedy. If we’d had some government with the will and capacity to understand what it means to adequately manage the ecosystems that produce water and to conserve and responsibly administer that water, developing the infrastructure needed to harvest, store and efficiently distribute it, our country wouldn’t be in the worrisome situation it now finds itself.

There’s a lot of enthusiastic talk today about investment in energy and communications, and even an interoceanic canal, but who wants to seriously discuss investment in water? The issue isn’t even on the agendas of our public officials or, unfortunately, of our social, political, religious, community and economic leaders. If we don’t quickly get water on the table tagged for prompt attention, what future perspectives can we expect to have?

The myth of abundant water per capita

Let’s look at some data from the discouraging panorama of this resource in Nicaragua. Written documents often repeat that we’re a privileged country because each Nicaraguan has 38,600 cubic meters of water available per year. Our country appears to have advantages over the rest of Central America, even as the territory with the greatest availability of water on the entire continent.

But that’s an artificial figure from the perspective of the effective use we make of our water. We arrive at it by adding the rainfall level to the amount contained in our bodies of water, then subtracting the runoff into the sea and dividing the total by the population. The result is that marvelous—and deceiving—figure, a concept similar to per-capita income, which divides the country’s total income by its total population to establish what “corresponds” to each Nicaraguan. Theoretically, that gives us all a good income but we already know that some actually end up with the lion’s share.

Even supposing that this figure for the per-capita availability of so much water had some truth to it, until the infrastructure necessary to store, treat, distribute and purify that water is developed, it’s impossible to measure how it benefits us.

The situation of groundwater

Instead let’s examine some more realistic data. Water for human consumption is obtained from the water table, or subsoil, as well as rivers and other bodies of surface water such as lakes and lagoons. In Nicaragua’s Pacific area, the most populated part of the country running from Rivas in the south to Chinandega in the north, as well as in part of the central north, 90% of the water we use is taken from the subsoil. That area contains 93% of all the groundwater in Nicaragua.

What happens to the surface water? Almost 90% of Nicaragua’s 75 rivers are in the Caribbean Coast. There are few rivers in the Pacific, and many of them dry up in the dry season (approximately November to June). They are short, shallow seasonal rivers and almost all of them are contaminated. I wouldn’t want to think of anyone drinking from the Ochomogo, Bambana, Acome, Tipitapa, Chiquito or Tuma rivers, or even the Río Grande de Matagalpa, or for that matter from Managua’s Tiscapa Lake or Lake Xolotlán [also known as Lake Managua] any time in the next 100 years. Nicaragua’s great rivers, the truly deep ones, drain out to the Caribbean Sea, in extensive zones that lack groundwater because the geological formation and soil type don’t favor water infiltration or storage.

It’s contradictory, but the majority of our ancestors settled where there’s less surface water, which characterizes our water map today. That’s why the water we use for human consumption and our productive activities in the most populated areas of Nicaragua is extracted from the water table. But what are we doing to refill those reserves? Precious little. The huge growers use 70% of the water extracted from the subsoil to irrigate their vast plantations of sugar cane, peanuts and rice, export products that only enrich a handful of people. Another 15% of the groundwater is used by industries such as water, beer, liquor, milk and fruit drink bottling companies, also all in the hands of large producers. Barely 6% of the water extracted from the water table goes for human consumption.

We’re a country with “water stress”

Getting to the water stored underground involves investing to drill wells, build electrical pumping systems to bring the water out and huge tanks where it can be stored and treated and finally install extensive distribution networks. In Managua, where the largest population is concentrated, ENACAL administers nearly 160 wells to supply more than 600 neighborhoods and settlements given that the Asososca Reservoir now only supplies 9% of the capital’s water consumption.

There are only some 600 more wells for human consumption in all the rest of the country, and they only partially cover the demand for water in the municipalities. An estimated 50 of our 153 municipalities still have serious water supply deficiencies. That doesn’t mean that the city of Managua has all its demand satisfied, a problem even more marked in the semi-rural areas of the municipality of Managua.

The US Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy added Nicaragua to the list of countries with “water stress,” related to the volume of water the population shares. It gave our country 42.3 in environmental performance and defined the water situation as being in the “scarce” category. It placed us 136th on its list of 163 countries.

We aren’t administering our
natural resources responsibly

To avoid abusing the groundwater we should be constructing reservoirs all over the country. In some areas of the Pacific it could be done with investments similar to that required for wells. It would take less electricity to operate the reservoirs and would reduce the excessive drilling of wells in cities like Jinotepe, Diriamba, La Concha and Masaya, where they have to drill up to 1,000 feet deep. There’s water in our subsoil from the refilling of the aquifer over the last 50 or 100 years but today we’re consuming that water Nature kept for us without putting it back. That water has a limit. Refilling the water table means building works that will reduce the velocity of the runoff, using retention and infiltration methods as well as planting more trees and taking care of them to restore the vegetable layer. Various private sector companies are uncontrollably exploiting more than 300 wells in Managua’s three sub-watersheds and aren’t paying anything to use that water, or for environmental services, even though they’re contributing to the rapidly accelerated deterioration of the aquifers.

The groundwater is also being used because so many rivers are now contaminated, a situation that keeps getting worse year after year with all the household, agricultural and industrial waste and residue. Some developed countries treat and purify contaminated water and even recycle wastewater, but those treatment plants require huge investments. In Nicaragua we’re far from accessing such costly technologies, but we also wouldn’t need them if we administered our natural resources responsibly.

We’re allowing our forests to disappear

Nicaragua has been rapidly losing its vegetative layer due to ruthless clear-cutting by lumber companies, settlers who slash through the agricultural frontier to establish pastureland for extensive cattle rearing and people who cut down whole trees for commercial firewood. In 70 years Nicaragua’s forest landscape has been transformed into extensive dry, arid zones where the water sources have been reduced.

There are forest policies but they aren’t being enforced. Virtually no real reforestation initiatives are being implemented, and those that are can’t keep pace with the tree-felling. In the revolutionary eighties there was a lot of enthusiasm and numerous reforestation campaigns. Some vestiges remain of the pine groves planted in Matagalpa and Estelí. A decade ago a moratorium was approved on cutting down certain tree species and the sectorial law was reformed, but it didn’t even make a dent in the felling of all the timber-yielding species.

Although we hear about new initiatives every year, we need to admit that we’re failing to reforest adequately and successfully. Reforesting isn’t a media campaign in which people wearing t-shirts with pretty logos are filmed beaming with satisfaction as they plant little saplings. To be effective those campaigns have to plant trees appropriate to the ecosystem and each little tree has to be watered, cleaned of weeds, pruned so the sun can enter and cared for in the first years so they can weather the environmental conditions. Otherwise the campaigns are nothing more than good intentions and only help cover up the real deforestation, which is advancing at a dangerous rate.

The environmental disaster that’s destroying Bosawás, the lumber extraction in areas of Nueva Segovia, Chinandega, Matagalpa and other Nicaraguan departments, the threats to the Indio Maíz Reserve and the amount of lumber being extracted day after day—with National Forest Institute (INAFOR) licenses and no comment from the authorities—make us think this government has ended up a fiasco when many of us originally thought it would have a positive environmental policy. We find ourselves wondering why the Army’s Ecological Battalion, created by the Bolaños government and installed in the Bosawás Reserve, isn’t working. Between 30 and 50 flatbed trucks loaded with entire tree trunks leave Bosawás daily under the very noses of the battalion members. Whose trucks are they? It’s known that a good part of them belong to Alba Forestal (linked to the governing party) and others to large untouchable businesspeople also related to the government, who justify the felling by arguing that they’re also planting a lot of trees…

Laws are nothing without enforcement

Entities like the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA), INAFOR and the mayor’s offices don’t respond to the public denunciations. The protests by residents of El Arenal and Yucul in San Ramón, the Chonco Reserve in Chinandega, the Mining Triangle and more recently in Ocotal are well known. The few forest nucleuses located in some 50 private reserves in our territory are also being threatened. There’s simply no political will in the government; the majority of farmers have no environmental consciousness and there’s next to no organization of the population to halt the deforestation, with the exception of a few organized forest wardens among the Mayangna people who are vainly trying to protect the Bosawás reserve’s buffer zone from the ravages of mestizo settlers while trucks keep taking out trees cut down out of sight in the center of the reserve.

This vegetable layer is what permits the rainwater to infiltrate the subsoil and remain there. But if we’re consuming ever more water from the subsoil and deforesting that vegetable layer, our very future is at risk. Apparently we don’t want to open our eyes to what this means for our own lives and the lives of our children.

As always happens in Nicaragua it isn’t the legal framework that’s failing, since we have a very well developed body of laws for water, starting with the Environmental Law (Law 217) promulgated in 1996, which was followed by the General Law of National Waters (Law 620) drawn up and proposed as a citizens’ initiative in 2003 and approved between 2006 and 2007 during the governments of both Bolaños and Ortega, and more recently the law regulating the drinking water and sanitation committees (CAPs) approved in 2010. There’s also Law 275, which created the lead entity, the Nicaraguan Water and Sanitation Institute (INAA), and Law 276, which created the state water distribution utility ENACAL in 1998, when the regulatory functions were separated from the service suppliers. Legislation related to environmental crimes was included in the recently reformed Penal Code, and the General Law of Drinking Water and Sewage System Services Law (Law 297) approved in 1998 is still in effect. That law was passed at a moment in which the creation of a legal framework for the privatization of all public services was being encouraged.

The country runs on imposition

I’d like to tell you an anecdote that shows how our country imposes political will rather than the juridical framework. When I was directing ENACAL, we prepared a presidential decree that established a tax per cubic meter of water to compensate for the fact that when approving the Water Law the National Assembly representatives didn’t want to include rates for companies to irrigate export crops or the commercial and industrial use of water. We wanted to use the funds we would collect for investments to maintain the aquifers those same companies were exploiting. We held meetings with the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and showed them the water map and the importance of their contributions. You know how they responded to us? COSEP’s president José Adán Aguerri headed up a lawsuit demanding protection against the decree, insisting that it not go into effect. Then those business leaders turned around and negotiated with the government that only the bottling industries would pay the rate.

Yet it wasn’t until 2011 that the Supreme Court issued a resolution establishing that the bottling comanies would have to pay the ridiculous figure of US$0.05 per cubic meter of water consumed. It’s a pittance! They pay 1.03 córdobas for each cubic meter of water they extract while the fee for residential settlements is close to 3 córdobas per cubic meter. With one cubic meter the bottled water companies fill 2,000 half-liter plastic bottles, which they sell at 20 córdobas each. Do the math: they pay 1.30 córdobas for every 40,000 córdobas of income while poor people pay three times as much as the owners of the beer, rum, Coca Cola and Parmalat factories, or any other that uses huge quantities of water as a basic input. It’s fine that they run businesses, but it’s only fair that they pay a tax that allows the State to make public investments to conserve water resources that favor the entire population.

The approval of the Water Law culminated in 2007. That law established that a tax or fee law would be passed the next year. Nearly eight years later they still haven’t approved the rate for those who use some 85% of the water extracted from the subsoil for their industry or agroindustry. That suggests that the big exporters, bottling companies and five-star hotels will continue to be subsidized. And the only explanation for that is that no government official, justice of the courts or legislator wants to touch the pocketbook of big business. The current government shares that complacency with the preceding ones. All of them have protected those who use groundwater for their highly profitable businesses—sugar cane, peanuts, rice, liquors, non-alcoholic beverages, dairy—and ignored the obligation of the country’s wealthiest to pay for the water they have.

Subsidies to the private utility
companies but not the state one

Another fact, which is both economic and legal in nature, is that the drinking water and sanitation service isn’t being assigned the funds that correspond to it. In 1998 the laws regulating public services were modified, opening the way for their privatization. Those laws included the govern¬ment’s obligation to reimburse the water and electricity operating companies the amounts granted as subsidies to the poorest families, whose water and electricity bills were below the costs of the service. They thus approved a new legal framework to privatize energy, communications and water, except they didn’t draft a specific law in the case of water.

In 2000 we in the Consumer Defense Network discovered the Alemán and Bolaños governments’ strategy to privatize water and the plans of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to finance that process. We engaged in an intense struggle to prevent the privatization of water and the network’s social and citizen’s movement presented a draft for a general law on water. In 2006, after a sustained mobilization, we got the first part approved. The next year the approval was concluded and in 2008 we helped draft the first General Regulations. That buried the intent to privatize that vital service for the moment. In Matagalpa and Jinotega, the water service had already been turned over to an English company, BIWater, which administered it for five years. Then in 2009, when I was still heading ENACAL, we reversed that decision and now the service is again run by the State.

Meanwhile, the General Law of Potable Water and Sewage System Services (Law 297 of 1998) remained in effect. That’s the law that was drawn up and passed thinking water would be privatized, as in fact happened with electricity. It contemplates the State paying for the subsidies the operating companies would provide to low-consumption families. But while the privatized electricity generating and distributing companies did get that subsidy reimbursed by the State, ENACAL, which remained a state company, never did, making it impossible to cover its high costs partly due to the obsolescence of the networks and partly because of the unpayable collective agreement imposed on ENACAL for party reasons.

The result is that 70% of the country’s families receive a water and energy subsidy. While ENACAL invested 12 córdobas per square meter of water produced in 2010, it only charged 3 córdobas to the families in the poor settlements. That means that the State should reimburse ENACAL 9 córdobas. But even knowing the legal scheme planned for that reimbursement, no government, including this one, ever reimbursed ENACAL anything. So why the discipline in reimbursing the subsidies to Unión Fenosa or TSK, both of which are private companies? I’m sure that if water had been privatized, the subsidy would have been reimbursed to the private company that bought the water business. That suggests that this government’s intention is to force ENACAL into bankruptcy to justify the privatization of water, obviously as a new business of the Albanisa consortium. When we were in ENACAL, we managed in nearly four years to put that state company at a level of financial equilibrium that was unthinkable when I took over, when it had a monthly 34-million-córdoba deficit. Four years later, it’s again technically bankrupt.

We should be grateful to
foreign cooperation, but…

Like all previous ones, the current government has been miserly with water. In fact, the water projects that have been and continue to be executed have basically been possible only with international cooperation funds. Some 95% of the projects I directed in ENACAL were done with foreign funds.

The clearest example is the construction of the Wastewater Treatment Plant in Managua, inaugurated in 2009, which cost nearly US$100 million. The IDB financed collectors and interceptors, the Norwegians all the pumping stations that run from Acahualinca to the plant, and Germany’s KFW donated the entire treatment plant and the solar drying modules. Thanks to that plant, nearly 50% of the capital’s wastewater is collected and treated. There are barely 28 treatment plants in the rest of the country, many of them saturated, even though at least 55 cities should have them. Let’s remember that all the water that comes into our homes clean leaves contaminated. If it isn’t treated, we’re returning it to Nature, to the rivers, lagoons, lakes and subsoil full of all kinds of waste, grease and bacteria.

…they often cost more than they should…

In the name of peoples and governments in solidarity with Nicaragua, international cooperation agencies have done a lot of water-related work in Nicaragua and we should be grateful to them. Nonetheless, the scheme under which the implementation of the big water projects is organized in which the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and the Central American Bank of Economic Integration participate makes the works more expensive than they otherwise would be or indebt us too much, as only international companies with a certain profile meet the requisites listed in the terms of reference, and that shoots up the costs.

Salaries of 8,000-12,000 euros a month are applied in accord with the European countries’ fiscal policy. Even the inputs and equipment come with the developed economies’ price tag and all that makes everything more expensive. Many of the water systems could have been built with half or a quarter of the budget approved. The Juigalpa water system cost US$40 million, and the system to improve water in Granada and a faulty water desalinization system in Bluefields cost US$25 million each.

…they sometimes aren’t designed well…

Inefficient use is made of the cooperation funds when the works end up with evident or hidden defects because the foreign companies subcontract the design out to businesses that cut corners to save money. And when that happens, officials and professionals from the sector commonly lower their guard and don’t supervise the work adequately, turning a blind eye to the problem.

I can think of numerous examples, such as the Bluefields water project, constructed during the Bolaños government, and the initial designs for water in Boaco and Granada, during that same period. Then just a few years ago, Spanish cooperation, using FAD funds, insisted on buying 70% of the inputs in Spain, many of which didn’t meet Central American norms.

…and the bureaucracy is
terribly time-consuming

Another criticism I have of international cooperation is the extensive bureaucratic procedures involved in completing each project cycle. Five to seven years can roll by between the presentation of the project’s profile, revisions, official discussions, approval, official green light, comings and goings before passage by our National Assembly, definition of the supplier short list, approval of the terms of reference, tender process, contracting, feasibility studies, selecting, contracting, training and finally the execution of the work.

The people of Boaco dreamed about their water project for 70 years, and when it was finally at the doors they were hit by the drama that it was poorly designed and the costs were unrealistic. We saw things in the construction plans that made me want to cry, among them a dam that needed to be 117 meters long but appeared as only 70 meters in the plan. Obviously the design was made in another country or at someone’s desk. Something similar happened with the projection of the tanks. How could an international company do something like that?

In 2007, we had to tell a water project supervisor in Ciudad Sandino to replace 20 kilometers of drinking water pipes because they had used sewage network pipes. The same thing happens with some rural water systems, where the design and quality of the work reduce their useful life or their sustainability.

There should be more local involvement

To repeat, we should welcome cooperation and be grateful for the water-related work of NGOs, but municipal public administration should take the initiative and administer the investments in water, taking advantage of cooperation’s resources and involving local businesspeople who can back them. The Water Law contemplates the creation of Watershed Councils and Sub-Watershed Councils with the joint participation of all local stakeholders—farmers, community organizations, NGOs, universities and users. That was the model established to encourage discussion about watersheds, given that various municipalities share a single watershed or sub-watershed. But that model hasn’t been implemented.

At the same time, the mayor’s offices should be required to put more effort into managing their water system. That role is officially in the hands of local governments in at least 25 municipalities and in some the results are disastrous, particularly with respect to water quality, because the investments have been abandoned.

The many problems of
Managua’s water supply

ENACAL produces 365 million cubic meters of water a year, an amount that’s hard to imagine. Now imagine this: Managua consumes 160 million cubic meters of water, which means 238,000 cubic meters a day. Even though that’s a lot of water, it’s not enough, and the reason is that almost half of that water doesn’t get to the users because it’s lost in obsolete networks and broken pipes and meters. It’s what they call “unbilled water”; water that’s extracted, pumped, chlorinated and sent through the network of pipes, all using a bunch of electricity and other resources, but doesn’t get to the people because there’s too much leakage in the joints between the old cement pipes and the iron and/or PVC ones. It’s also lost when pipes break due to heavy vehicle traffic or seismic movement and sometimes to illegal pipe connections.

There are many deficiencies in Managua’s water distribution networks and those of almost all the rest of the country. There aren’t enough resources to keep the drinking water networks maintained, not to mention the networks of wastewater pipes and the chain of manholes. The solution is to keep on replacing and continually repairing the many kilometers of pipes.

In other countries the solution is to introduce flexible pipes into the old plumbing system. This would be a good solution, but when we proposed it to the government we were told it’s very expensive and resources are limited. They don’t consider the resources spent on water that ends up lost, wasted, unused.

What will we do if Lake
Cocibolca isn’t an option?

Given this hardly encouraging panorama of the water we have and how we use it, we must ask ourselves how long the sources of water we use today are going to last. The underground water is dwindling and will do so even more with climate change, drought and deforestation, i.e. with the loss of both rains and the vegetable layer. Where are we going to get more from? The forecasts were that in the next 20 years Managua would be consuming water from Lake Cocibolca [also known as Lake Nicaragua], but that source is now threatened by the presumed construction of the interoceanic canal.

Until works get underway to bring water from the lake to the capital we’ll have to use the groundwater from an area between Ticuantepe and Sabana Granda, where the capital’s most important underground reserves are located. But they’re at risk as well, because exactly 120 new housing tracts have been built in that area, and instead of building adequate systems to treat the waste water from the houses being built, they constructed mammoth septic tanks to save money. Since those lands have fractured rock, the risk is that contaminating particulates from the wastewater could infiltrate the groundwater reserves.

That’s another example of the fear of touching the businesses’ pocketbooks, in this case those of housing developers that turn out to be irresponsible, which most of them are. They are protected by this government, and in fact some have partners who are officials while others are buddies of people with power. So they aren’t touched. Who in the municipal governments of Managua, Nindirí or Ticuantepe, all municipalities close to that important water reserve, can demand that the urban developers respect the law?

And what will we do when these reserves are exhausted? The only thing left will be the water from Lake Cocibolca. People don’t have a full grip on what could happen to us. Hence the urgency of conserving this gigantic body of water at all cost as it is our country’s main natural resource, the greatest reserve of fresh water in Nicaragua and the whole of Central America. We put an article in the Water Law that establishes the lake’s importance, but we don’t see any political will to respect it. Textually, article 97 of the law says: “The protection, conservation and destination of the waters of the Great Lake of Nicaragua or Cocibolca are the responsibility of the State, with the participation of the municipal governments, municipal associations, private sector, nongovernmental organizations and general population. This lake must be considered as a natural reserve of potable water, and of the highest interest and national priority for national security, with specific mechanisms and regulations needing to be established to ensure and regulate the productivity of the water and at the same time ensure the maintenance and increase of the volume that permits the development of economic activities, without lessening the production of water in either quality or quantity, prohibiting the introduction and cultivation of invasive exotic species, and equally avoiding the contamination of the resources and deterioration of its ecosystems through industrial and domestic dumping.”

Managua isn’t Nicaragua

There are also very serious water-related problems in the rest of the country. Departments like Chinandega and León have enough groundwater, a privileged ecosystem given the presence of volcanoes, a good rainfall regimen and a sandy soil that permits good infiltration of the water, which appears to be relatively close to the surface.

But people are virtually without water in Estelí and Las Segovias. They don’t have the groundwater reserves we have in the Pacific. Ocotal is the driest city in Nicaragua and the one with the least water reserves, even though the Río Dipilto passes right by it. That river should have a storage system that would supply the whole city, but the investment hasn’t been made.

Matatalpa is also facing serious water problems. The trees of the San Francisco sub-watershed have all been cut down and not reforested, despite contributions from international cooperation. Most of the water the city receives comes from Sébaco Valley through a pumping system that runs more than five kilometers. We need to realize that the extraction of water from the sub-soil has a limit because it runs the risk of also extracting heavy metals such as arsenic, which has been identified in some zones of Estelí, Matagalpa, Boaco and Chontales. There’s a discouraging scenario caused by drought in some rural communities of San Isidro, Ciudad Darío, Terrabona, San Ramón and La Dalia, with the appearance of bramble patches indicating that not a single drop of water is falling, while the arroyos are now just dry, rocky ground.

The same thing is happening in dry areas of Boaco and Chontales, where there are virtually no rivers anymore and the few that still exist only have water seasonally. When I was at ENACAL, we went to those departments to drill wells, but of ten we drilled only one gave water and only a small amount. Chontales’ trees were felled to make more land available for extensive cattle rearing, and the result has been devastating. That’s why we sometimes use the term “Chontalization” in Nicaragua when talking about the tragedy of deforestation. In Juigalpa, the capital of Chontales, they ended up with no groundwater at all and some years ago started to get their water from Lake Cocibolca through the Puerto Díza project involving a 27-kilometer pipeline from the lake to the city.

A similar system was developed for the tourist municipality of San Juan del Sur. That system starts with intake valves in La Virgen, at the edge of the lake in Rivas. Both systems are now threatened by the construction of the interoceanic canal. Other cities, such a Rivas itself, Granada, Acoyapa, San Carlos, Ometepe and Cárdenas could use similar systems to quench their thirst with water from Cocibolca, but they lack the design and haven’t sought financing, and if the canal becomes a reality they’ll be out of luck.

The future panorama looks grim

Public investments should have started years ago to build different sized reservoirs to store rainwater for both human consumption and production, especially small-scale production. But there are no signs of receptivity to these proposals, which should have seen central and municipal government resources move into water-capturing infrastructure that could have been built with help from members of the National Army.

At the risk of being apocalyptic, the panorama is dramatic. We’re losing so many surface water sources with springs, brooks and some 20 of the country’s 75 rivers having totally dried up. Meanwhile, we keep exploiting the water table and cutting down the forests. And if it weren’t bad enough that we’re our own worst enemy, the lumber dealers are damaging the Bosawás Reserve’s buffer zone and even huge areas of its nucleus. That tremendously valuable ecosystem, which is important not only for Nicaragua but for all of Central America and in fact the entire continent, is being destroyed with ever greater speed, and its destruction means still less water in the country’s north and central areas.

If our rivers are being contaminated, we aren’t allowing our water table to refill, we’re destroying Bosawás and giving Lake Cocibolca to an international canal so ships can pass to the benefit of world trade, where are we going to find water to drink? Those 38,600 cubic meters of water they tell us each Nicaraguan has are nothing but a fantasy, an example of How to Lie with Statistics?

A serious government, a good one, should have already been asking where we’re going to get water for the population in the next 25 years. The regulations we drew up for the Water Law establish that it is the obligation of the State and of each municipality to identify, plan for and conserve the water sources each community will have for human consumption. But so far, the only thing I’ve seen the Water Authority do is authorize new wells for private companies and there’s no indication that the municipalities are assuming those tasks.

Moreover, it’s not only about guaranteeing water for human consumption, but also for production and food security. Many businesspeople talk about our future being in tourism. But how many tourists are going to be attracted to places where there’s no water, or where it’s not safe? There are plenty of reasons to make Nicaragua a tourist country, but one that is reforested, conserves its water sources and avoids contaminating them. Nicaragua could even export water, because water is already so scarce in other countries, they have to import it. A strong argument is being made these days that the business of exporting water to neighboring countries, such as El Salvador, which has an enormous water scarcity, or northern Costa Rica, would be more profitable for Nicaragua than the income we’ll get for the seriously questioned canal.

What will we do about climate change?

We’re facing a new reality in the form of drought, the real dimension of which should concern us. Given the lack of public information, I’ve used data from a friend who keeps records of Managua’s rainfall. As of the end of July 2014 we’ve only had 224 millimeters of rain in the capital, which is less than the cumulative rainfall of our driest year in the past six decades, 1972, the year of Managua’s earthquake, which was 325 mm. It’s another warning sign we should be paying attention to. What are we going to do if there are several years of severe drought like this one?

And what will we do with the climate change variables, which make it very hard to predict what will happen? There are studies that show how climate change is going to reduce the rains in the Pacific area and increase the temperature several degrees, which will result in even greater and faster water evaporation. The increased temperatures also translate into greater demand for water by both humans and livestock. We may be facing a future of droughts and more heat while lacking systems to conserve the rainwater. Given the real possibility of that scenario, why not reserve the lake’s water for irrigation systems that guarantee the country’s food security? This should be a national priority, not an interoceanic canal.

The municipalities, communities and organizations need to start thinking about the future now and organize to demand to know where we’re going to get our water from in the coming years for our homes, animals, crops, and all other the uses that ensure life. We have to educate those governing to begin to see the problem in its true proportion and commit themselves at least to responsibly manage the water we still have available.

We need to build a new
culture through education

We must also educate ourselves because as a society we’re a disaster at managing our bodies of water. Our bad habits lead to the contamination of numerous rivers and streams, even areas far away from urban life. Even some Mayangna indigenous communities now have accumulated garbage, particularly plastic bags and bottles, everywhere. The lack of education about managing the environment and our water resources is widespread.

It begs the question of why education on caring for the environment has never been incorporated into the public primary, secondary and university education system despite being established in the Environmental Law, Law 217. The answer is that the Ministry of Education isn’t receptive to that mandate.

When I was at ENACAL we presented numerous initiatives. Almost all our engineers and professionals went to give water and sanitation talks in schools. We produced two preschool stories on water, promoted forums in universities, held community assemblies on the issue, had our own radio program and were invited by the media to participate in numerous programs. We showed all manner of actions the government could take. That was possible due to the commitment of some 300 professionals who enthusiastically dedicated ourselves to those tasks all over the country.

But afterward all that ended. There’s no conviction that this is a necessary, even urgent educational task. School is where we should begin to generate a new attitude, a new culture, another way of doing things. Water is a social need and it has a social profitability, especially for health. If we invest in water we’ll spend less on medicines and doctors and have a healthier and more productive population.

People only organize
when they’ve got a problem

We should take our hats off to some communities because they’re doing very good work. There are also some nongovernmental organizations that have gotten through to the population’s consciousness. But I feel those are exceptions and that a public policy is needed that systematically, continually, insistently starts transforming people’s awareness.

One interesting experience was when we inventoried rural water systems administered by the CAPS, which have existed for some 30 years. In 2008 we recorded 5,600 CAPS and today there may be up to 6,000. The CAPS Law of 2010 (Law 722) recognizes them and regulates their functioning. My experience tells me that maybe 10% of these community committees are working quite well, but most don’t take up reforestation to conserve the water sources as part of their work. The support they receive from the mayor’s offices is very precarious and they don’t always have resources to provide maintenance to their systems.

Law 722 establishes that each municipality must have a water office to support the CAPS and coordinate the local stakeholders, NGOs included, that work on water and sanitation. But that office normally has only one person and one motorcycle, which doesn’t always have gas. So it’s impossible for a technician to attend all the 50 or so CAPS in a municipality. Legalizing the CAPS has mainly increased the bureaucracy, since now they have to repeat their constituent assemblies in the formats INAA gives them and the communities usually only meet when they don’t have water. At the start of the project they organize and work voluntarily on the pipe-laying and chip in money for the system, but once the people have water in their homes, it’s not easy to get them to go to the assemblies and participate in the decision-making. The problem is that they can only access the government’s technical assistance if they meet as the legal processes establish.

As a society we’re not well organized to conserve our water resources, much less to struggle for good water management. So what about the organization promoted by the governing party? Over the years, the FSLN was essentially dismantled, and replaced by a set of structures originally called Committees of Citizens’ Power (CPS) and now Cabinets of Family, Community and Life. But I don’t get the sense that these barrio and district leadership bodies are very concerned about or working on the issue of water either. They dance to the tune of each campaign sent down to them. If they’re sent to pick up garbage in the parks and streets, they do it. If they’re sent to do something else, they do that, but they don’t seem to have ever organized around water.

There’s real organization around water only in places where it’s been a serious problem; there, driven by their own needs people have gone to workshops offered by NGOs and have been building positive community experiences, but they haven’t yet attracted national attention.


In Nicaragua we have hydroelectric plants that use water to produce energy. The two largest and most important ones date back to the Somoza regime: Santa Bárbara and the Nicaragua Plant, which produce 50 megawatts each. They use the water stored in Lake Apanás and discharge it into Río Viejo. Along that same route they are building the smaller Larreynaga Plant to use the same water.

There are also another 18 small hydroelectric plants, most of them in the Río Grande de Matagalpa watershed, toward the Caribbean Sea and the area of El Rama. These renewable energy plants are supplying the demand from a lot of communities, and a good number have the capacity to sell energy to the national grid. Some six more are currently under construction. The plan is to end up with between 25 and 30 small and medium hydroelectric plants. It’s calculated that energy generation using water power is already contributing 18% of the total electricity Nicaragua consumes.

Eight years ago, when I last contributed to envío, it was on the issue of energy, and at the time Nicaragua was producing some 470 megawatts per hour. Now we generate nearly 560. And back then, only 30% of the energy was produced with renewable sources. In 2014 it’s up to 50% due to all the investments made since then, including in wind energy.

The strange thing is that even through we’re transforming the energy matrix, the electricity rates haven’t gone down; they’re still very expensive. Renewable energy is turning out to be good business for the investors, but it still isn’t benefitting the population.


The huge Tumarín hydroelectric project has been hyped continually since 2010. It involves a 55-square-kilometer reservoir that would use the water from the Río Grande de Matagalpa and produce nearly 30% of the energy we consume in Nicaragua, virtually transforming the country’s electricity matrix, which until a few years ago was based on generating energy with petroleum derivatives.

Tumarín, which has precedents in large projects back in the Somoza period such as the never-built Copalar dam, was presented as the panacea. We were told we’d be receiving energy generated by Tumarín by 2017 but here we are in 2014 and construction hasn’t even gotten underway because the Brazilian investors and the government can’t reach an agreement, and meanwhile the costs of the project have been climbing. They began at US$660 million and are now up to US$1.1 billion. Economist Adolfo Acevedo has analyzed the costs of major hydroelectric plants similar to Tumarín in other countries and found that they only cost a fifth of the Tumarín budget. What’s going on? Is the kickback very large or the risks very high? Who knows? Everything suggests that Albanisa is now behind the Tumarín project, providing one more piece of evidence of the concentration of investment and capital by a single economic group, which leads us to wonder what the conversion of our energy matrix is really going to mean for the population’s wellbeing.

The Grand Interoceanic Canal

One additional aspect is that the small and medium hydroelectric plants in the South Caribbean will be affected by the interoceanic canal project. HKND Group, the Chinese company granted the concession, has already said that the rivers feeding these plants will be rerouted to form an artificial lake they are thinking of naming Atlanta, which according to HKND corporate executives will supply the water needed for the functioning of the canal locks. However, the required water level has to be related to Nicaragua’s rainfall since the amount of water for the locks is enormous. Nicaragua’s average national rainfall is 2,400 millimeters, which is less than in Panama and Costa Rica. The US builders of Panama’s canal created Lake Gatún, which is fed not only by more rain, but also by a large number of rivers, providing enough water to continually replace what is needed to operate those locks.

I’ve read some studies by engineers who claim that the water from Lake Cocibolca won’t be enough to move the locks and ensure the ships’ passage. Those studies also provide figures of the amount of fresh water that will empty into the ocean with the passage of each ship through the canal, and they are alarming. The Panama Canal uses 200,000 cubic meters, or 200 million liters of water, to move each ship from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Nicaragua’s canal will need nearly triple that amount because it will be wider and deeper and three times longer than the Panama Canal. It is thus estimated that it will require some 600,000-700,000 cubic meters of water, or 600-700 million liters, for each ship, with an estimated 10 ships crossing the canal per day.

These data show that Lake Cocibolca won’t have the capacity to supply that volume, which is why the HKND design included the construction of that artificial lake. These figures show that, in addition to the problems already heading our way, the canal will use up an enormous amount of fresh water. If some 238,000 cubic meters are extracted and sent through Managua’s water distribution networks for the consumption of the capital’s population daily, nearly triple that amount will be needed to move a single ship through the canal. Have the canal’s designers studied that aspect? Has this been posed to the Grand Canal Authority? As the studies are secret and no one has access to the technical data of what they’re thinking of doing beyond what they want to tell us, we also have no idea if studies have really been made. Furthermore, given that the project came enveloped in an enormous cloud, there’s no guarantee of either the seriousness of the project or the appropriate environmental care.

The two Nicaraguan spokespeople for the project, National Agrarian University president Telémaco Talavera and environmentalist Kamilo Lara, who are respective embarrassments to the country’s universities and environmentalists, have offered us no guarantees that the canal’s environmental consequences have been studied in depth. The only thing we know for sure is that this absurd work could theoretically leave us with no water for human consumption.

So many doubts and questions

Nicaragua has 21 watersheds, the largest of which stretches from San Rafael del Norte and Yalí in the north all the way to Río San Juan in the south, and is the one that drains into Lake Cocibolca. That watershed has suffered an impressive loss of trees, and all the sediment from the rivers involved end up in Lake Cocibolca. This includes the rivers that flow first into Lake Xolotlán, which in turn drains into Cocibolca, and the 12 rivers that empty directly into Cocibolca. The walls of the enormous trench that will have to be excavated along the bottom of the lake to make the canal will have to be tremendously fortified to hold back such an amount of continually arriving sediment.

Environmental studies show the severe damage the project will have on the lake’s biological life and the loss of our strategic source of potable water, but these issues don’t seem to even concern Talavera and Lara. They just keep telling us that the canal’s great advantage will be the reforestation of the whole watershed. But the trees planted today will take a minimum of 20-30 years to grow and cover the clear-cut area with vegetation. And they would only guarantee the canal, not us.

This project raises an enormous number of doubts and questions with respect to the soils, sediments, volumes of water and risks to the biodiversity. And worse yet, it’s being brought to Nicaragua by China, the country with the most ravaging technology on the planet… We could end up losing our greatest and most valuable treasure: our water.

We have to react, but will we?

We’ll only have the capacity to pressure the State once we have better informed, better educated citizens who demand their rights, who see in its proper dimension what it means to have enough quality water. This society isn’t going to produce a model different than the one we have today if we remain passive, but I sense a generalized fear among the people, the organizations, even the leaders themselves to demand, to fight, to denounce. I sometimes feel our current fear is greater than in the times of the Somocista dictatorship, when we did more dangerous things. Could the population be more cowardly, more afraid today than in the times of Somoza? I don’t want to believe it.

Ruth Selma Herrera is a business administrator specializing in Political Economy and Public Policies and a researcher and activist on water and sanitation issues. She was the executive president of ENACAL between 2007 and 2010.

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