Freshwater Action Network
– grassroots influencing on water and sanitation

Securing legal recognition for 1600 communities that are doing the government’s job

In a recent webinar Marc Mellin,  President of the Community Water District (Acueducto Comunal) of Concepción de Naranjo, discussed ongoing work to implement a legal framework to govern the activities of the Costa Rican Community Water Districts.  If the framework is approved by Congress, it will give individual communities greater power to manage their water services.  Gaining this authority is a critical requirement in many areas, as the government has failed to provide water service to nearly a third of the country’s population.

Community Water Districts as they stand

The Community Water Districts (CWDs) of Central America are managed by the customers for the customers.  Interested community members can attend the annual General Assembly or join the local CWD Management Association and get involved in managing their local water services.

Although Costa Rica is fortunate that its CWDs are afforded legal status as an association (this isn’t the case in some other Central American nations), there is no formal legal framework to govern the Costa Rican CWDs in their activities.  As a result, many of their activities are not recognized and sometimes even treated as illegal, despite the fact that they are helping to provide a basic service that the government is failing to provide.

Each of the 1600 CWDs of Costa Rica are operated in isolation.  Many CWDs are not aware of how water is managed by the neighboring district, let alone a by district on the other side of the country.  While there are some existing regulations by which the CWD Management Associations should abide, they are outdated, inflexible, and with little legal foundation.  Essentially, these rules just aren’t relevant to water management at a community level.  For example, they require that a board ask permission of the Federal Government to install water meters or even to fix a leak in a pipe.  Waiting several months for an inefficient bureaucracy to respond to such basic requests is simply not compatible with efficient provision of a basic public utility service.  Since the existing regulations are so far out of touch with reality, they are widely ignored.

A new legal framework

Marc Mellin has been involved in the development of a legal framework to govern the CWDs and enable them to operate with greater efficiency.   It all started in 2008 when a group of CWD leaders took it upon themselves to travel around the country and speak to other water district representatives to find out what should be done in terms of creating guidance.  The result of this process was the development of a draft bill which has been submitted to Congress and is currently making its way through the political process.

“The current regulations treat us like we don’t know what we’re doing,” says Marc.  If the bill is accepted by Congress, it will give the CWDs greater autonomy so that they can make decisions that they do not currently have the authority to make.

The current regulations treat us like we don’t know what we’re doing.

One of the most important features of the new legal framework is that it would give the CWDs limited freedom to change the rates that they charge customers.  The current authorized rates are lower than the rates the municipal water districts can charge.  They bring in just enough money to pay the basic costs of getting water to the community, but they do not cover all of the extra costs involved in maintaining a water system in the long term.  Increasing revenue is not the only reason that rate changes could improve sustainability of the water supply.  Moving away from a flat-rate system means that rather than everyone paying the same amount, higher charges can be imposed on people when they use a greater amount of water.  This encourages water wasters to curb their water usage.  It is a fairer system because bigger businesses that use more water will pay more, and poorer households can ensure their costs stay low (so long as they keep a watch on their water meter reading).

Marc also pointed out that the new legislation tackles some of the gender and age equality issues of the existing setup.  Current regulations state that the only people who are allowed to join the CWD Management Associations are those who own the connections (i.e., the property owners).  Ninety percent of property in Costa Rica is owned by men, so women are far less likely to have the opportunity to participate in decision-making relating to their own water supply.  The new legislation would allow two people per connection to join, thus giving women and younger people a better chance of getting involved in local water management.

Government involvement

Despite the obvious benefits of the new framework, it currently sits in a precarious position. “We need to support and defend our draft bill or else it will be torn to pieces”, Marc says.  He explains that the document is written in terms that are appropriate for the level at which the CWDs operate, but that most politicians do not even know what a CWD is.

There are 1600 communities in Costa Rica that are saving the government’s butt.  We are doing the government’s job because it is incapable of providing water services in our communities.

And what about the government’s own duty to provide water to the community?  Marc points out that the new legal framework would not diminish the government’s responsibilities in this regard.  Rather, it is a way of providing the CWDs with the power that they need to manage their own water because of the failure of the Government to meet its obligations.  “When they ask us why we are submitting the bill, we say we want recognition…There are 1600 communities in Costa Rica that are saving the government’s butt.  We are doing the government’s job because it is incapable of providing water services in our communities.  This is one case where I don’t complain about government incapacity, because it has allowed so many communities the opportunity to manage their local water systems.  There is no guarantee that a given community will rise to the challenge, but when it does, that community’s residents benefit from a level of service quality that no impersonal government bureaucracy in the world can match.”

Click here to listen to the webinar using Blackboard Collaborate (discussion starts at 1h18min)