The quaint town of Nosara, Costa Rica faces a common threat amongst growing surf tourism destinations — sustainable potable water supply.
I have been visiting this little slice of paradise for over two years now, implementing sustainability initiatives with Safari Surf School and their LEED Certified surf resort, Olas Verdes (slated for April 2015). In that time, I have become deeply connected with the community development projects in this blue zone — an area where an abnormal percentage of residents live into their 90’s and 100’s. Leaders in this community are passionate about establishing Nosara as a sustainable development model for tourism destinations in Central America. Among waste management, reforestation, and wildlife conservation, water distribution is the most pressing issue for both the local residents of Nosara and the tourism industry of neighboring Playa Guiones.
Contrary to most brochures, not all of Costa Rica is lush and tropical. Located in the country’s driest province, Guanacaste, Nosara experiences a ruthless dry season for 6 months, then a few months of little rain, and 2 months of heavy rain when there are no tourists. This creates dilemma in the high season (Dec/Jan), which is the driest part of the year but most demanding for the water municipality—often leaving the residents of Nosara to deal with water shortages so tourism businesses can keep the tap flowing. In addition, earthquakes have rattled existing infrastructure and will continue to do so. As of now, the current water distribution infrastructure is projected to meet rising demand over the next 20 years. However, even these numbers are still skeptical considering how degraded the old tanks, pipes, and pumps are. On top of all this, the local (ASADA) and regional (Aya) water municipalities are fragmented, volunteer based, and insufficiently funded… They need help, which is why I was so stoked to get this email out of the blue:
“I’m a 26 y/o mechanical engineer / product designer and am leaving my job in the next couple months (or sooner)… I would love to volunteer and apply my skills, if possible, in a developing country.”
Alex Mark approached me in January wanting to quit his comfy engineering job in San Diego and do something more meaningful with his talents… commendable to say the least. After 3 months of coordinating with members of the ASADA and receiving some help from Safari Surf, we were able to organize Alex’s accommodations and define the scope of his project with the ASADA during his three month stay. Part one of Alex’s series of Field Reports frames the source of the problem and discusses recent developments amongst the municipalities:
Is the AyA really changing for the better?
By Alex Mark
I have only been in Costa Rica for one month providing support to the directors of the water system in Nosara Centro. As an engineer from the United States, I have taken a lot for granted – constant supply of electricity, easily accessible food, and an abundant water supply even during periods of “drought” due to lack of rain in Southern California. One month in this country is more than enough time to realize how easy we have it in the United States and see how much the systems can improve here. The lack of water access in Costa Rica, and especially Guanacaste, is inexcusable considering how vital this resource is to our health.
I have already heard multiple stories of lack of support if not complete and utter negligence from the AyA (Insituto Costarricense de Acueductos y Alcantarillados). With the recent change of government and a meeting between the new president of AyA, Yamileth Astorga, and the ASADA (Asociación Administradora de Acueductos y Alcantarillados) leaders, AyA is apparently changing.
AyA is a municipality responsible for supporting each ASADA. With over 1,500 ASADA’s in Costa Rica and only a few engineers responsible for planning, designing, and constructing each of these rural systems. In all of Guanacaste, there are only 4 engineers, so it is evidently difficult, if not impossible for them to successfully perform their obligations.
Lack of Support to Nosara Centro
AyA seems to do the bare minimum to appear that the administration cares about performing its job and helping the underlying ASADAs. The most bazaar haphazard attempts to help the local ASADA are the mysterious gifts (as described below) without any hint of follow-through or even follow-up.
After the earthquake in September 2012, the Nosara Centro water system endured some damage to the system, and the most obvious damage occurred to the main water tank next to the school. This 45,000 L tank is metallic, rusting, and the connection to the outlet of the tank broke during the earthquake. AyA representatives visited Nosara Centro soon after the earthquake and decided to donate four 10,000 L plastic tanks to the ASADA. Almost two years later, these tanks are now sitting next to the main ASADA office because the ASADA does not have the money nor resources to have these tanks installed. Even if they were installed, ideally the tanks would be installed at a higher elevation equivalent to the elevation of the 230,000 L tank (Tanque San Juan). The solution for the meantime was to weld the outlet connection back to the tank as shown below:
Clearly a patch-up solution like this would not be acceptable in any first-world country. The moss growing around the perimeter of the weld at the connection indicates there is a small but existent leak. The rust around the tank indicates possible contamination of the water, and if the tank isn’t even sealed, the water is at risk from other sources of contamination.
In the middle of December 2013, the President of Nosara Centro, Christoph Hubmann, received a phone call from a fellow ASADA board member that various pipes were left at the front of the previous Nosara Centro office. Grateful for the piping but unsure what to do with the tubing, the tubing is now collecting dust inside the previous ASADA main office.
Again, Nosara Centro does not have the money or resources to determine where the broken and leaking sections of piping are located let alone dig up the ground and install new piping. Even though this gift may have been well-intentioned, AyA should absolutely do more to ensure piping is repaired instead of mysteriously leaving materials at the front door of an ASADA.
Open-Mic Meeting with new AyA President to Discuss Change
On May 28th, AyA held a meeting in Nicoya to which all of the Guanacaste ASADAs were invited. The new president of ASADA, Yamileth Astorga, was introduced, and the meeting served as an open forum for the ASADA board of directors to voice their concerns as a microphone was passed around. A meeting like this with AyA administrators and multiple ASADA directors has never been held like this in the history of Costa Rica.
Watch the video clip (Spanish) below for the introduction of the President by the Vice President of AyA.
“We have problems with the water quality. We have problems with water quantity. We have contamination problems.”
The problems with the quality, quantity, and contamination are all well-known to Costa Ricans. But I appreciated the straight-forward tone when presenting her knowledge of how terrible the water systems are in the country along with a seemingly strong desire to change the system.
The video clip below shows Astorga discussing some of her background experience and her understanding of the difficult challenge she is up against:
“Really this is a great challenge, and I like challenges – it’s the truth.”
Apparently Astorga understands the difficulty of improving each of these rural water systems but she enjoys the challenge. With the new change in government and AyA administration, there is an emphasis from Luis Guillermo, the new Costa Rican president, to finally improve the water systems.
She also mentions her prior experience as an environmentalist and working on a project to improve the water quality in Osa, southern part of Costa Rica. Having an environmentalist as AyA president should be a great benefit to Costa Rica if the administration is able to act under these ecological principles. Just as we want to improve the Nosara Centro system such that it is sustainable in order to protect the local region and avoid the destruction of natural resources, hopefully AyA starts to not only help improve the water systems throughout the country but does so without sacrificing the environment – by getting water from natural springs from higher elevation, storing water in tanks at higher elevations to minimize electricity used by pumps, etc.
Later in her introduction (not shown in video clips) she says that administration is made up of academics – not politicians – which implies that they are interested in helping Costa Ricans instead of solely profiting for themselves. The board of directors for each ASADA consists of volunteer members, whereas the AyA representatives are paid employees. The common belief is that because these employees secured paid positions for themselves, they lack motivation to help Costa Ricans outside of the minimum to keep their paid jobs.
See this clip for a segment from the end of her introduction before handing the microphone to the ASADA members.
“Water is the principal nutrient for our bodies.”
This is such a simple statement but one easily taken for granted in a large city, or any modern country, where water is supplied in excess. With water being so vital to our health, it is hard to imagine a place where the wells of a town’s water system are structurally deteriorating but a new, adjacent cell service tower is in excellent shape and well protected from property damage or theft. But this is the case in Nosara Centro.
Once she finished her introduction, other ASADA leaders were asked to share their problems and thoughts. The recurring responses mentioned the lack of support from AyA. There has been a lack of support through technical, operational, and legal assistance to all of the ASADAs, not just Nosara Centro.
One ASADA president mentioned the lack of money was not an excuse for the lack of communication between AyA and the ASADA members.
Another ASADA member angrily discussed the favoritism that resort towns receive by being plentifully supplied water for hotels and their extravagant pools along with the tourists and their frequent showers while the Costa Ricans who live nearby are forced to conserve water and restrict their usage because the systems cannot support the water requirements of its residents otherwise.
After listening to the concerns of the ASADA leaders for about 2 hours, Astorga requested that the ASADA leaders organize themselves based on their location within Guanacaste (Nicoya, Santa Cruz, etc.) and elect two leaders for that region to represent the ASADAs in that area. This was done within a matter of 10 minutes and the new “elected” representatives introduced themselves along with their phone numbers.
The start of the ASADAs working together is only going to benefit each of the ASADAs. The meeting made it clear that each town is having similar issues with their systems, and collectively bringing up the issues to AyA will make it more likely that AyA listens to you. But is another layer of representatives the answer? Each of these new representatives are volunteers for the larger regions, and it seems that since AyA lacks resources, they are placing more of the responsibility for the improvements of the systems on ASADA leaders and volunteers.
Only time will tell if this meeting really motivated the AyA to change as much they claim to want to change. It is so apparent that the ASADAs need more support from AyA that if AyA continues with their ways of negligence and incompetence, the rural water systems will continue to deteriorate while the demand for water continues to increase. Without support from AyA, the ASADAs will not be able to keep up with the development of hotels and condominiums and Costa Rica’s tourism and population increase.
Thanks for reading and look out for part 2 in a few weeks where I will dive into my work here with the local ASADA.