Freshwater Action Network
– grassroots influencing on water and sanitation

Challenges faced by the Community Water Districts of Costa Rica

Vanessa Dubois (FANCA) recently spoke with Marc Mellin (President of FANCA member organization) about the many challenges faced by the Community Water Districts of Costa Rica.

There are 1600 Community Water Districts (CWDs) in Costa Rica and many thousands more throughout Central America.  Different terms are used for these organizations, but Marc prefers the term Community Water Districts “because it emphasizes the fact that we are the only water utility operators that are run by the community itself.”  Each district is run by a community association which manages every aspect of the water service - from the water sources, transport, distribution, billing, and collecting and allocating revenue.

Marc has gained a wealth of experience from his own work with one of these community associations: the Community Water District (Acueducto Comunal) of Concepción de Naranjo.  He described the main challenges of the CWDs as being political, economic, and social.

If we can manage to come together and present a unified front before third parties, we would have enough political power to ensure that government policies take into consideration the way that we work.

“The main political challenge is obtaining recognition for the fact that we exist.”  The CWDs in Costa Rica provide water for 1.3 million people, and yet many government institutions are not even aware of their existence and assume that the state-run entity, AyA, provides water services to the entire country.  “We need to realize our full potential”, said Marc, talking of the need to create a national union of Community Water Districts.  “If we can manage to come together and present a unified front before third parties, we would have enough political power to ensure that government policies take into consideration the way that we work.”

The economic challenge for the water districts relates to water rates.  For the last nine years Costa Rica has had a public utility regulatory agency that sets official water rates.  The rates that have been approved for the CWDs are much lower than the rates approved for municipal water systems and other government entities.  The rates bring in make enough money to provide water to customers in the short term, but they do not cover the costs associated with future capital projects or protection of water sources.

The biggest social challenge for the water districts is getting the community involved in the management of their water system.  Costa Rica receives average annual rainfall of 2200 mm.  With so much water it’s difficult for people to understand the need to charge so much for it, but piping water into peoples’ homes is an expensive business!  CWDs often serve sparsely populated areas, and that means that there are greater lengths of pipe to maintain for fewer customers.  Education is crucial, and Marc’s CWD organizes field trips so that anyone in the community can visit the springs that supply the District and see what it takes to protect them.  People are made aware of how it’s necessary to purchase land surrounding the springs, to keep livestock, agrochemicals and other human activities away and keep the water clean for generations to come.

Getting the community to buy-in to community water management is essential for providing water service that is sustainable.  Aside from education, Marc believes that it is important that people invest effort in the development and maintenance of their water system, in whatever way that they can (e.g., labour, materials, land etc.).  People will also care more about their water if they have to pay for it.  Rather than charging a flat rate, provision of higher rates for excessive use of water means that people have an incentive to consume rationally, which reduces strain on the system and helps to preserve the supply.  Some of Marc’s thoughts on motivating the community to get involved and how this is essential for sustainable water management can be found here (PDF, 66Kb).

A legal framework for community water management

The CWDs of Costa Rica provide an essential service, supplying water to nearly 30% of the population.  Despite this, they operate under outdated and inflexible regulations with a weak legal foundation.  A draft bill has been developed by a commision of CWD leaders to tackle this problem, and if passed, it will give the CWDs more decision-making authority and leave them better positioned to tackle some of the challenges discussed here.  Read more about the draft legislation.

Participate in the discussion on community water system management on our forum.