We have to adopt not just a tree, but Nicaragua itself to save it from disaster
This expert on water and sanitation issues
explains crucial aspects of Nicaragua’s water crisis,
a national concern that has been growing in recent months
as more and more rivers, wells and other bodies of water dry up.
Ruth Selma Herrera
After two years of drought and this year’s long hot summer, we’ve seen evidence throughout the country of an environmental crisis like none before. It has left many of our communities without water, dried up rivers and wells, reduced the volume of water in our lakes, lowered groundwater reserves and shown us that a change of course is urgent… I’d like to think that it’s also opened a chink to increased environmental awareness.
In Nicaragua we only tend to react to full-blown crises, waiting until problems reach very serious levels before waking up. We do go into action when a catastrophe hits but ignore the signs indicating it could happen, thus delaying decision-making and action until the last moment. This clearly comes from the way we’ve been brought up, but it’s harder to understand why the authorities and those in charge of institutions, whose specific job is to use our taxes to take precautions and act promptly, are also like this. It’s understandable that citizens are slow to understand problems but institutions that have laws, regulations, goals and a framework of principles…? We even have a human development plan and an excellent legal framework. What don’t we have? But when disasters occur like those we’ve seen in recent months, it would seem as if the laws, regulations, legal frameworks and institutions don’t even exist.
We halted the privatization of water
We have the General Law on National Waters (Law 620), which would have prevented what has happened if it had been complied with. Let’s take a quick look at how that law came about and its significance.
Starting when Arnoldo Alemán was President (1997-2002), he and Daniel Ortega entered into a pact, which, among other things, resulted in the changing of significant legislation. For example, they reached an agreement to amend Article 105 of the Constitution, which defines the State’s responsibilities for public services. The original article established that those utilities can’t be privatized without specific laws for each sector. They amended the article to facilitate their privatization and with their combined majority in the National Assembly pushed through a specific law to privatize energy and another to privatize telecommunications, still during the Alemán administration.
When we in the National Consumer Defense Network learned that the Inter-American Development Bank was financing the privatization of water we decided to put a stop to it. We drafted a water bill, got more than the 5,000 signatures required by law to act on a citizens’ initiative, and presented it to the National Assembly in October 2003. By that time Enrique Bolaños had taken office and his government drew up its own version of the bill. Although things had changed in the National Assembly, making it no longer possible for the parties to the pact to easily get their way, the debate still stretched out over several years; 50 of its articles were finally passed by the second half of 2006. The rest of the law was approved in 2007, by which time Daniel Ortega was back in office.
Protecting Lake Cocibolca is in the law
Although the law has its shortcomings, the end result was quite progressive. Today, I sense Daniel Ortega would like this law forgotten, among other reasons because of Article 97. That article states that Lake Cocibolca “should be considered a natural reserve of drinking water as it is of highest national interest and a national security priority,” and that it is the responsibility of the State, municipal governments, private sector, NGOs and the whole population “to protect and conserve the use of its waters.” That legal mandate is, of course, an impediment to the interoceanic canal project.
The law also mandates all stakeholders, both institutional and social, to safeguard and care for our water system’s basins and sub-basins. An area’s basins and sub-basins are determined by the direction the rainwater drains, and the physiognomy of the hills and relief of the landscape determine that drainage flow. Nicaragua’s most extensive basin is Number 21, known as the basin of the lakes. It begins in the area of San Rafael del Norte and goes down to Lake Xolotlán, on to Lake Cocibolca and even to the San Juan River.
There are municipalities in Nicaragua that share basins or sub-basins. For example, La Concha, Ticuantepe, Nindirí, Managua and El Crucero share sub-basin 3, one of the most important for Managua, as I’ll explain.
Knowing and safeguarding our water sources
From a water resources perspective, the organization of our territory into basins and sub-basins enables us to know who must administer the water in each area. Article 35 of the Water Law establishes the creation of committees made up of both authorities and citizens to administer the basins, sub-basins and micro-basins. These committees will jointly set the priorities for the use of these waters in each case.
Law 620 assumes that citizens will organize and participate and that economic stakeholders will be involved. The law’s regulation even contemplated that each city and community must know which water source will provide it with water for the next 25 years. None of this has happened, however. Law 620 was passed nine years ago yet the territorial organization of water still hasn’t been done, which is one of the causes of the current disaster. I wonder who in Nicaragua has any idea which water source they should protect in order to have water for the next 25 years…
The sources we must safeguard are the groundwater, also known as aquifer or the water table, as well as the surface water (rivers, lakes, springs, creeks, water holes…) and the wells. Nicaragua’s central region lacks groundwater other than small reserves or pockets. Surface water sources must thus be specially safeguarded in that area and deposits, dams and reservoirs built to store water.
It’s important for each area to know which water sources supplies it in order to know how to manage them. We depend on groundwater the entire length of the Pacific plain, from Rivas to Chinandega. This water, which we draw from wells, has been stored there for up to three hundred years. It comes from rainwater, which has been slowly seeping into the ground feeding these reserves or aquifers.
We don’t precisely know how much water we still have in them, but we do know we’re extracting increasingly greater amounts for the expansion of irrigated crops, industrial use and human consumption by a growing population. There’s a question mark regarding how much groundwater we still have and how long it will last us. This becomes a major concern now that we know we’re running out of surface waters, that some well levels have dropped significantly, and that there’s a lack of recharging work—terrace systems for reducing the velocity of runoff, hedgerows, trenches, infiltration wells, reservoirs and retention ponds—which are built and fitted out to retain rainwater.
Law 620 establishes the duty of recharging the aquifers, conserving forests and doing works that allow rainwater to keep infiltrating the soil and feeding the groundwater. But we don’t do it. What we have today is an increasingly deforested country, even when we all know that trees contribute the most to water absorbing into the ground and recharging the aquifers.
Nicaragua’s great rivers—which have also been getting shallower—drain into the Caribbean Sea. The land in that region quickly becomes saturated during the rainy season, but it doesn’t store groundwater that could be used in the dry season and even when wells are dug, they don’t give much water.
Managua’s water supply
Let’s look a little deeper into the case of Managua, which has the largest population needing water. A hydrological study of the capital’s aquifer done in 1993 by JICA, the Japanese cooperation agency, determined that Managua’s strategic water reserve is in sub-basin 3, which contains the greatest volume of water and of the best quality, with the most suitable physical and chemical characteristics for human consumption. It is also the least vulnerable to intrusion of water from Lake Xolotlán, which could pollute it. This area should thus be forested so the trees could help conserve this groundwater.
Additional studies about the vulnerability of this water were also made with the involvement of the Swedish International Development Agency and the University of Stockholm. They all recommended where to build the well fields we have today to supply water to the capital. Most of the wells were built directly by Japanese cooperation, those for Ticuantepe starting in 1995 and those for Sabana Grande in 2001. The oldest are in Las Mercedes, behind the airport, built in the 1970s and expanded in the 1980s. Because wells don’t last forever, several of the 60 original wells have already been closed and others built to replace them.
Housing developments instead of well fields
We haven’t done everything the Japanese recommended over 20 years ago to properly conserve sub-basin 3. Managua’s new housing developments were built in this very area. Trees were felled, large areas were paved, thousands of houses were built and in some cases riverbeds were even diverted. Many of these projects provided the tracts with sewage treatment plants that are technically inappropriate because the soil is of fractured rock due to its volcanic origins, creating risks of polluting the groundwater reserves. As if all this wasn’t enough, some treatment plants don’t get the maintenance stipulated in the regulations and untreated wastewater drains into the streets, waterways and other public areas.
Based on the results of research we did in the Nicaraguan Water and Sewerage Company (ENACAL) in 2008, we began to denounce this situation but failed to stop the urban developers’ bad practices. None of the authorities, businesspeople and other key actors from the affected municipalities backed us up on this sensitive issue, with the exception of Dionisio Marenco, Managua’s mayor at the time, and the mayors of sub-basin 3, who endorsed a decree to regulate building in that area to protect the well fields and aquifer recharging zone. Within days, however, the developers and the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) appealed the prohibition decree and the judges found in their favor, dismissing the risk alert. Now eight years later, this problem has only worsened. There are even more housing developments, shopping malls, companies and individual housing in sub-basin 3. The tree felling continues, as does the risk of contamination from the water treatment plants, and not a single authority—not the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry (MARENA); ENACAL; the Water and Sewerage Institute (INAA); the National Water Authority (ANA), an institution created to enforce Law 620; the Drinking Water and Sewerage Commission (CONAPAS) or any of today’s municipal governments—is doing a thing about it.
We’re all dependent on water management
To know how much water is available for human consumption, a responsible government must take stock of the country’s water resources at least every five years, especially if extracting almost 113 million cubic meters of water a year just to supply Managua’s population, a figure that could be double that with the water extracted from hundreds of unmetered private wells whose owners don’t pay for water. Water pumped from sub-basin 3’s subsoil supplies 60% of the capital’s population, but this percentage will be seriously reduced if the over-exploitation continues.
To maintain the water balance, we can obviously only take from the aquifer the amount that can filter back in and who knows how much that is today? If we combine severe deforestation, the sealing off of the soil through construction, reduction in rainfall after three years of drought and the failure to do the work needed to effectively recharge the aquifer, the future isn’t at all promising. In this precarious situation, even the runoff during good rainy seasons with plenty of rain will quickly disappear and water infiltration won’t be achieved. Moreover, we would have serious flooding in the sub-basin. If sub-basin 3 continues to be neglected, most of the capital’s population will have less water, even knowing that this water quenches our thirst. But we’ve all turned our back on water management. The JICA study warned that Managua should already be preparing other water sources in 2015, mentioning Cocibolca as the primary source. Managua is an example of a city without urban planning, where public services, energy, housing, transport and garbage collection, don’t meet the principles of procuring the population’s wellbeing and security.
The population is concerned but
the government seemingly isn’t
Now let’s see how other areas are using and consuming the country’s available water. The population is alarmed because, just as we’ve been warning for years, there’s been evidence in recent months that our water is running out. The government’s tremendous resistance to recognizing and confronting the situation is shocking. I’m surprised that this government in particular is proving so insensitive to such a vital issue and that the relevant institutions are so lethargic about the water crisis and the destruction of the forests, protecting their business sector partners and abandoning the people.
Some believe that people, families, are the greatest consumers of water. It’s not so. Homes consume about 6% of the water extracted from wells. The biggest problem in home consumption in Nicaragua is the high percentage of leakage. Over half of the water extracted and carried by pipes is lost in the distribution process because of breakage, obsolete networks or user nonpayment. Investment in maintenance is also insufficient. We were able to reduce these losses between 2007 and 2009 when I was in ENACAL, but they’ve increased again now and that’s because constant investment is needed to resolve these problems.
The water that reaches users is very expensive, involving extraction, pumping with electricity and chlorination. The domiciliary service is currently at survival levels. For it to improve, the government must make it a priority and invest far more. It isn’t doing that and so far the projects depend on contributions from foreign cooperation and bilateral loans.
70% goes to agro-exports
At least 70% of the groundwater that’s extracted is used for irrigated agro-export products, most of which use wasteful irrigation systems: gravity, flooding and spraying. Contributing to this lack of modernization to optimize water use is the fact that the businesses don’t pay for water or invest in reforestation and infiltration projects, which puts enormous pressure on groundwater reserves and endangers availability.
When the Water Law was finally passed in 2007, Article 14 established “collecting tariffs for the use and exploitation” of water “in order to give the user and society clear indications of water’s real value.” A tariff law was to have been drafted within a year so each producer, depending on the kind of production involved, would pay for the water consumed. This, said the law, would help “rationalize the use and reuse of water” and resources would be obtained from these funds “for the financing of water planning,” environmental investments, research and social works for sectors with low access to water. Absolutely none of this has been done...
ANA is responsible for drafting the water tariffs law while MARENA is to write up another law, one governing production’s wastewater management, since this water shouldn’t be mixed with human drinking water sources after being used because it contains polluting chemicals and sediments.
Many big businesses don’t pay for water
We’re now well into in 2016 and neither ANA nor MARENA have written these laws because they don’t want to touch the pockets of the big agriculturists, who are the major consumers of water and now get it for free. The fact that Law 620 establishes that growers should be charged for water appears to be another reason the government wants to ignore that law.
In addition to the 70% of water used by agriculture, the estimated amounts of it used in different activities are 15% for industry, 9% for services and tourism, and only 6% for human consumption. This shows us where the money needed for environmental work to conserve water sources could be tapped.
A big bloc of industrial water users are the plants that produce bottled water, beers, juices, liquors, sodas, milk… Four years ago the Supreme Court finally agreed to the charge of US$0.05 per square meter of water used for a very small group of bottling companies, which is only a third of what the low-income housing projects pay in for the same unit of water, a true pittance for the essential raw material for their highly profitable businesses.
Many other industries also use water as a raw material or essential input in their productive process and many of them don’t pay for it either. Large hotels and restaurants also have their own wells and don’t pay for the water they consume. Other companies in Nicaragua irrigate extensive golf courses and don’t pay either. All this water is taken from the subsoil.
As newcomers to ENACAL we wanted to know how many private wells there were, at least in Managua. We managed to inventory about 200. We told the government and the owners of these wells that we needed to install meters so we would at least know how much water they were extracting so that once the tariffs law was in place they would know what they will pay. We also wanted to make them aware of real consumption and encourage them to invest in water-saving technology since there’s equipment that saves water just as there is to save electricity. At that time some companies allowed us to install the meters and a few even agreed to start paying a tariff despite the fact that it wasn’t yet law. But, as expected, most companies and COSEP appealed for protection against the charges… and the tariffs law was never made.
As long as producers don’t pay for the water they use, and don’t understand that they have to budget for the billions of gallons of it they use, they will have no reason to be more economic. Michael Healy, president of the Union of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua made some rather astonishing statements about rice production and the now-extinct River Malacatoya, arguing that the water the farm uses is theirs and if they can pump it from any source they can use it without any restrictions.
Does this gentleman not know that water is a public good? Has he not read the Water Law, which established that human consumption should always be the priority? How is it possible that someone who runs a professional association can think like that? The law is clear: if someone has a concession for some water source for agricultural irrigation or industry and there’s a community that’s thirsty, the concession has to be revised, and if there’re no other option the agricultural irrigation has to be suspended and human consumption prioritized.
The importance of water balance
That’s why it’s important for each municipality to learn its water balance and keep it up to date, to know how much water is being extracted, how much is infiltrating and how much we have left. If we don’t maintain the balance, the water will run out on us, as is already happening in many communities of Chinandega, León, Rivas, Granada and some sectors of Managua and Estelí, where the wells aren’t providing enough water to supply the population.
The major crises in surface sources through deforestation and drought are in Boaco, Camoapa, Ocotal and Puerto Cabezas. Boaco and Camoapa, for example, don’t have either surface or ground water and no one knows what solution the government will give them. Neither MARENA nor the Water Authority seems aware of this. And if in fact they’re monitoring it, why don’t they report on what they’re going to do?
Those in Boaco waited 70 years for a drinking water system. It was an historic demand no one was able to meet. We finally made the system for it yet now Boaco’s lands have been deforested, drying up the Fonseca River. The Camoapa population, whose lands are also deforested, depends on a small lake called Rocas Morenas, which is also drying up.
Contradictorily, instead of insuring water for the population, what we’re seeing in recent years is that new private wells have been authorized and well concessions revalidated. We’ve also seen claims, such as from a community of Diriamba that charged that the river that used to supply them “was given” for the use of a sugarcane producer and now the people don’t have water. We’ve also seen dramatic and irritating images of rice producers’ enormous pipes that suctioned the water from the Malacatoya River until it was completely dried up, using a primitive irrigation system that wastes enormous quantities of water and left the communities without drinking water.
In addition to the tragic human problems the loss of water sources in the countryside is causng for the people who live there, it is alo going to step up migration from rural to urban areas, exacerbating the water situation in the cities as well.
The amount of water allocated for irrigation in Nicaragua must be more carefully analyzed, but let’s look at some facts about the companies that irrigate. Using the 2011 Agricultural Census, the last available, and cross referencing this data with some figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization, we learn that the country has 262,546 agricultural operations of different sizes, from less than 1 acre to over 870. Of these, 12,000 irrigate over 247 million acres. And the roughly 2,300 with the largest areas under irrigation are the ones that dominate agricultural irrigation in Nicaragua. Their farms range from 87 acres to more than 870 acres per company or individual owner.
The large farms that irrigate are in Chinandega, León, Matagalpa, Managua, Granada and Rivas. And the crops irrigated most are rice, sugarcane, peanuts, sesame, bananas and pastureland. In Managua, 24,360 acres of crops are irrigated. Almost 76,560 acres are irrigated in Chinandega, where the large sugar refineries have their cane plantations. Granada has 283,620 acres and Rivas almost 294,060, mostly planted in rice and pastureland.
How much water do they consume?
These 12,000 companies consume a huge amount of water. On analyzing the type of irrigation they use, we find that almost 5,000 use gravity or flooding, which are extremely wasteful systems; 1,800 use a sprinkling system, which doesn’t economize water either; while only 1,500 use drip irrigation, which uses water rationally; and 2,700 use watering cans or hoses. Five years after the 2011 census, knowing how much the sugarcane, peanut, rice and cattle businesses have expanded, water consumption must have increased substantially.
It’s significant that 1,059 of the largest companies irrigate by gravity. You might think that being the most extensive they’d have the most profits and therefore greater resources to invest in more rational technologies. But they don’t. Of the 2,300 largest companies, only 275 use drip irrigation, 610 use sprinklers and 276 irrigate manually.
When we look at the data by geographical distribution, Matagalpa ranks first with 2,010 companies irrigating, which means they are rapidly using up the water from Sébaco Valley, which is not well wooded, and they have done almost no work to recharge this water table. After Matagalpa comes Estelí, with about 1,700 companies irrigating, possibly for the extensive cultivation of tobacco, which would explain why its population is experiencing a lack of water. Estelí is followed by Jinotega, where a lot of vegetables are produced. Then come Rivas, Nueva Segovia and León. The department with the fewest companies using irrigation is Chontales.
We can no longer continue wasting water without doing what’s necessary to recover Nicaragua’s groundwater. It’s unacceptable that we have no regulation for the use of national waters and even less that we continue without passing the Tariffs Law so all producers pay for water and use it responsibly.
A very pertinent study
In my research on water use I found support from Arcadio Choza, a civil engineer who is a consultant in environmental hydrology and hydrogeology specializing in our water resources. He’s a very wise man, who found the energy to explain many important issues to me even though his health was failing. He gave me a study done by engineer Raúl López just over ten years ago that is a proposal for calculating water resource exploitation tariffs as the basis for formulating a tariffs law. This document has been in the hands of MARENA and the Water Authority since 2005, and they should have used it to do the urgent tasks they still have pending.
The study calculates the quantity of water used to produce sugarcane, rice and other agricultural crops. It gives information about the areas allocated for irrigated rice in Nicaragua, yields per acre, and the amount of water used, and compares, for example, irrigated rice production with rain-fed rice, showing the expense of irrigation and the saving with rain-fed. It isn’t about trying to stop people eating rice, as Michael Healy retorted to a journalist’s question about water wastage in the rice fields. It’s about a country adopting policies that help us use water more rationally and effectively.
This study provides some interesting figures about higher yields being obtained in cultivating irrigated rice in Costa Rica. Nicaragua’s productivity is 40% less than that of our neighbors. We need to know the current figures and see what the rice growers need to correct, so the country doesn’t continue wasting water and they can produce more efficiently. Rice is one of the crops that use the most water. An estimated 792.5 US gallons of water are needed to produce a pound of rice in Nicaragua. It’s important to know what that ratio is in other crops.
The economics of water
All Nicaraguans should know that water has its economics. It must be planned for, managed, regulated, utilized, prioritized for this or that purpose… If other countries produce rice more efficiently than we do, would it not behoove us, based on water economics, to import rice instead of producing it locally and wasting water? We urgently need to do this kind of deliberation. Should we continue paying more for a sack of sugar than it costs on the international market, carrying a burdensome decades-old subsidy imposed by all governments favoring the sugar-producing sector, which doesn’t even pay for the water used on its plantations? In many areas of the Pacific these producers have wells that already compete for groundwater with wells designated for human consumption. Such reflections imply promoting a debate that would result in productive policies being coordinated with water resource policies.
Let’s go back to Raúl López’s study… It contains very specific evaluations about the efficiency levels of different irrigation methods, demonstrating the need to use scientific information and the importance of serial statistics in the productive results of each crop. Many of our producers appear stuck in the Stone Age. We have many producers who claim to be modernized flooding their crops with river or ground water… just to level out their land!
With our agriculturally based economy, we’re using so much of our water for agriculture: 70%! The US uses 49% of its water for agriculture and Europe 38%. Yes, we know that in the global division of labor our countries have been assigned the role of raw materials providers, but we’re the ones who have chosen to do it so inefficiently.
Rethinking our production
and development model
This year’s environmental crisis should lead us to rethink our production and development model, which destroys forests to turn them into pasture land for cattle. We have to abandon extensive cattle ranching, which has been continually pushing the agricultural frontier ever eastward. We must consider export crops that use extensive rather than intensive methods. We must stop agriculture that is settling lands that should only be used for forests. And we must convert what’s left of our forests into sustainable, environmentally stable units.
To start making an attitudinal change and taking appropriate decisions I would like to see Nicaragua’s Army doing the work needed to recharge the aquifers throughout the country. We’d like to hear the good news that the Nicaraguan Chamber of Urban Developers and others are planting and caring for trees in sub-basin 3, which they deforested to make housing estates. We’d like to learn that they’ve fixed the faults in the water treatment plants. And we’d also like to know that many families are planting trees in their own yards and are motivated to do small works to infiltrate rainwater into the subsoil. The name Nicaragua contains the Spanish word for water, agua, but if we want to safeguard the water we still have and keep this name, we must wake up and start to act quickly.
Why use drinking water for plants and cattle?
The municipal authorities must also act. Let’s look at the whole Masaya area and what we call the Meseta de los Pueblos (the Plateau of the Towns). There’s no surface water there, just a few small creeks and certain rivers that only have water in the rainy months. The groundwater there is more than 1,200 feet down and extracting water from such deep wells is very expensive. The population has to be educated to understand the problem so decisions are made that avoid leading to absurd situations. In Catarina and other neighboring towns, many people live from selling decorative and other plants that they grow in their family gardens. They water these plants with drinking water and all the cattle in this area also drink potable water whose extraction and treatment is very expensive. This is absurdly irrational.
Their Municipal Councils should construct rainwater reservoirs that fill in the rainy season and build a pipe system, parallel to the drinking water pipes, up to the communities that live from selling plants. It isn’t about getting rid of the plant nurseries, but of using methods that make good use of rainwater. We’ve promoted some initiatives on this but with this government the Municipal Councils have totally lost their autonomy and are paralyzed by the “guidelines” they receive from the central level.
It concerns me that many people think the problem will be over if we get good rains this year. It will be far from over. It can take up to three years from when it rains to when the water gets to a well spring, depending on how deep the water tables are and up to twenty years for the groundwater to fully recharge. Today we’re consuming water that accumulated 100, 200 or 300 years ago.
Furthermore, another problem arises when a lot of water is extracted from a source: its quality begins to vary. Water at greater depths has other characteristics, the minerals may have other concentrations, and this potential change in the quality of the water could be damaging to health.
Different initiatives, different motives
In the context of debating this environmental crisis, initiatives have emerged from many young enthusiasts who want “to do something.” It’s worrying that some authorities want to modulate these spontaneous movements to bring their proposals closer to those of the government, for example to government campaigns such as the “adopt a tree for love of Nicaragua” with which the government is attempting to address with a cute campaign a structural crisis that should trigger serious corrections in public administration.
It’s not enough to plant a tree. Reforestation efforts should be planned and have appropriate resources and care and very precise objectives. Reforesting in an urban setting isn’t the same as in a rural one; the trees should be selected according to certain criteria, you can’t reforest with any old plant, any old way and any old time. In our country we must prevent planting species such as neem or eucalyptus, which extract a lot of water from the ground and compete with native species. Planting also requires a sustained care plan to ensure growth. Certainly, the more environmental movements that spring up the better, but we shouldn’t be naïve and suspend considerations about the existence of those with personal existing interests in modulating and regulating criticism.
Without forests there’s no water
Clearcutting the pine forests in the Dipilto-Jalapa mountain range, ordered by presidential decree this January as a means of counteracting a beetle plague, has been enormously irresponsible given that this area has already been intensively losing forests in recent years. And we know that without forests we won’t have water. The consequence has been that the rivers and creeks have dried up throughout this area, endangering local fauna and the people who live there.
One of the first actions still remaining to us to conserve water is to stop deforestation. Despite the President’s more recent verbal order to stop cutting the pines in the Dipilto-Jalapa mountains, trucks filled with logs are still coming out of the Bosawas and Indio Maíz reserves, even though it is prohibited. We won’t have efficient answers until we become fully cognizant of the risk of living in a country that has used up all its forests and waters.
And such awareness is coming slowly to this society, which hasn’t been brought up to conserve natural resources. There are people who take advantage of the dry season to remove and sell sand and boulders from dry river beds, causing them serious damage. It’s an example of just how self-destructive we sometimes are. We have an irresponsible society that throws trash anywhere and still uses firewood to cook with...
The use of firewood is an important factor in the destruction of the forest in addition to ruining women’s lungs and eyesight, since they are the ones who cook. Firewood is expensive for the urban family economy and also for the nation, but every day we see carts coming into the cities loaded with firewood to sell. Instead of “planting” dozens of very costly, metallic trees, this government should sell gas stoves to people at an affordable price and lower the price of gas tanks until cooking with firewood is eliminated.
It’s getting late for finding solutions and we have very little time left, especially because of all the forest cover we’ve already lost and the forests we’re still destroying. Five years more of this intense rate of deforestation without recharging the groundwater reserves will bring a dramatic sequence of events down upon us.
The water governance institutions
Let’s now look at the institutions with the greatest responsibility to act on water governance.
INAA: People often confuse this regulatory body with ENACAL because years ago, during the revolutionary period in Nicaragua, all tasks were centralized in it: regulating, setting tariffs and administering the urban and rural water distribution systems. Later, with the 1997 wave of privatizations, ENACAL was created to administer the water systems and INAA remained with the tasks of formulating policies and approving tariffs.
Sometimes it’s as if INAA no longer exists. It is passive to users’ complaints and very tolerant of urban developers who build or manage drinking water and sewage treatment systems without adhering to the rules. Every year it extends permits to developers who end up managing water systems, effectively privatizing water. Today about 30 developers manage water and sanitation systems, and charge for water, setting high tariffs. Usually, they don’t respond to users’ criticism and complaints even about the quality of the water they sell them, disregarding the law that regulates drinking water and sanitation services.
ENACAL: The other institution is ENACAL, which administers some 126 water systems in the country’s 154 municipalities, operating about 900 wells and some 15 surface water sources. It is the institution with more everyday presence because it’s the one that provides the service and sends out the water bill.
Another 27 municipalities administer their own water with even more restrictions than those faced by ENACAL, among them Matiguás, Río Blanco, La Dalia, Rancho Grande, Santa María, Teotecacinte, San Nicolás, La Sabana, Pantasma, Siuna, Bonanza and Rosita.
MARENA: This is one of the institutions linked to water that has more macro tasks. It is responsible for conserving the country’s natural resources: water, forests, soils, fauna, flora, and regulating their use. With respect to water, it’s doing absolutely nothing.
ANA: Then there’s the National Water Authority, which shares some powers with MARENA and isn’t doing much either. Created through Law 620, ANA is supposed to keep a record of the nation’s water sources—rivers, creeks, lakes, springs, wells—and work to ensure their protection but it hasn’t even made an inventory of these sources, much less identified those that are running out or are in danger of disappearing.
In the midst of the current environmental crisis, ANA’s director gave statements that show scant knowledge about the Water Law and he admitted that he still hasn’t had time to make an inventory and a management plan for water resources, despite being in office for seven years… Does this man have any idea how much responsibility he has in his hands?
ANA is responsible for regulating which water should be used for production and which for human consumption and other uses. It must establish priorities and reorganize the country’s water systems. But it’s an institution that virtually doesn’t function.
In addition, there are some 5,800 Drinking Water and Sanitation Committees (CAPS) in communities throughout the country that directly administer water. Few have democratic management and most maintain centralist ways and work with big shortages. They use different types of water sources, mainly surface ones (creeks, rivers and springs) and also a few drilled wells. Deforestation has been rapidly drying up their sources, as was acknowledged this April by Arístides Álvarez, national treasurer for the CAPS Network, who reported that 90% of the sources were dry or almost so. There are communities where CAPS supplied water daily and are now only giving it once or twice a week.
CAPS are regulated by a special law, Law 720, passed in 2010, and are under the “custody” of INAA. But while INAA is responsible for supporting the CAPS operations, it doesn’t give them technical assistance; instead it just pressures them to meet the legal requirements so they can maintain their legal status. Most CAPS are orphans, hoping that an NGO will once again finance their water system or help them improve their existing one.
Water and Sanitation Units were also created in the municipalities with the same Law 720. But they too function only on paper because the municipalities claim to lack funds to have staff and resources to attend to the communities’ needs. They don’t even check to see if the CAPS chlorinate the water and make no effort to find out if the water contains other kinds of contaminants. In fact over 70% of the CAPS provide water without chlorinating it, so it presumably at least contains fecal coliforms. A small percentage has had constant support and resources from NGOs so has had better results, but the government has abandoned its responsibility for the rural communities in this regard. In this situation, the CAPS do what they can.
Is the government about to privatize water?
The government has now worked up a reform to the ENACAL Law, giving it some of the powers the Water Authority had, such as authorizing and regulating construction of wells and how they are to be used… It’s a very important task, because public and private wells comprise 90% of the water sources that supply the country, whether for human consumption or irrigation. But will the amendment mean they will continue extracting groundwater without addressing the subsoil’s urgent need for recharging aquifers?
I’m concerned that this amendment is the prelude to the privatization of water. Otherwise, how and why would the government hand over responsibility for all the country’s wells to ENACAL without providing it either the resources or the subsidies defined in the 1998 drinking water law to maintain the systems it manages, which means their leakage losses continue to rise an estimated 58%? What other intention could the government have with this amendment: to centralize decisions of where to open and close wells? Does it want them all privatized? With this amendment anyone can come and say: Ciudad Sandino doesn’t have water, give me the concession to build wells and then let me sell the water…
Who’s planning this country?
That’s the big picture. These are the institutions we have. They aren’t coordinated, they’re forbidden to think and afraid to decide even about matters within their powers. Given all this, one wonders where water governance is. It would seem that it doesn’t exist. Who’s planning this country? Who’s watching to see that we aren’t facing a new disaster every year? I’m terrified to think that almost nobody is doing it. How much do the political class and the business sector understand about the overall implications of the water issue?
We feel an absence of government, or a government focused on its own affairs. Without forgetting the Somoza dictatorship’s cruelty, the murders, political repression and persecution, there were at that time people in the Cabinet who seemed to have more vision. It’s no coincidence that in those years they built the two big hydroelectric plants we now have, Santa Bárbara and Santa María de Pantasma, which are still saving the energy grid’s face with the percentage of its megawatts they produce. Nicaragua has had many water experts. We were a power in water engineers. Now, unfortunately, we’re left with very few because most have died, others are very old and we don’t know how many professionals are being trained in this specialty.
What we must do
There will be no water governance without all of us becoming involved. And our first task is to protect Lake Cocibolca, not only from the canal but also from pollution caused by farmers’ pesticides, drainage outlets of some rice farmers and cattle ranchers plus all the sediment and sewage that flow into it from nearby cities. It’s written very clearly in the 1993 Japanese study: we in Managua depend on sub-basin 3 and after that Cocibolca will be there to give drinking water not only to us but also to Rivas, Masaya, Granada, Carazo and other areas. Our entire country’s food security will also depend on its waters. If the environmental emergency we’re in isn’t addressed we could lose that Great Lake.
In late 2015, the effects of deforestation in Bolivia caused the disappearance of Lake Poopó, which had a surface area of 772.2 square miles and was the largest after Titicaca, which is also endangered today. We recall how the Aral Sea in Central Asia, one of the world’s four largest lakes with a surface area of 26,254 square miles, was reduced to almost nothing in what’s been described as “one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters.”
These disasters were seen coming and could have been prevented. There’s already experience in recent history that tells us what we shouldn’t do. We have to defend Cocibolca, and to do so we have to raise the banner of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’”, a revolutionary document, a banner any community can raise to demand that the authorities do their work.
If we hadn’t deforested our country so much or overexploited its water sources, we wouldn’t have touched bottom as we have this year even with these three years of drought. Yes, it’s an emergency situation. The water balance has to be upgraded, at least in the places where the crisis is greatest. I hope that we’ll all demand that the government restore this balance and ask for it from cooperation, which will continue giving the government resources to invest in water.
Does anyone realize how many people will begin to die of thirst in Nicaragua? The recent mysterious deaths of 75 howler monkeys in the Rivas area, which may turn out to have been water-related, could be a warning bell for the humans who will die from lack of water or from drinking polluted water because they have nothing else…
We’re in an emergency of huge proportions that won’t be resolved by a good rainy season this year nor by the little campaign to “adopt a tree.” We have to demand seriousness from the authorities so they address this emergency. It’s our right and their duty. We don’t just have to adopt a tree; we have to adopt this entire country—its rivers, creeks, lakes, forests and the water in its subsoil—to save it from disaster.
Ruth Selma Herrera, a researcher on water and sanitation issues and founder of the National Consumer Defense Network, headed ENACAL from 2007 to 2010 and is currently executive director of IDEAS, a strategy and operations consultancy.