The Struggle for Water

Reducing the Spread of Tourism in Costa Rica
Ernest Cañada

The province of Guanacaste in Costa Rica has seen a series of intensive conflicts arising between communities and hotel and residential projects in relation to water. The construction and speculation fever that the area has been subject to since the end of the 1990s has positioned it as one of the main tourism destinations in Central America. With a dry tropical climate and low rainfall over part of the year, the availability of drinking water is a key element in the success or failure of many of these business projects.

For the communities, the pressure on the aquifers which they use for their daily water supply and for irrigation has meant that the water sources have been left short or become salinised. On extracting water very intensively, their level lowers allowing the seawater to then enter and contaminate them. In the decade from 2000, these kinds of socio-environmental conflicts multiplied until the international financial crisis. The failure of several projects then reduced pressure on the construction of new works to channel water to these residential premises.

Temporary success for Sardinal

One of these emblematic conflicts was that involving the community of Sardinal, in the canton of Carrillo, which in 2007 managed to stop the construction of an aqueduct after a long battle against the government of Costa Rica. Eunice Contreras, one of the community leaders of Sardinal, explained that "one day, during the night, we found out that they were building an aqueduct. That was when we started to look into it and we found out it was illegal because it did not have the corresponding studies or permits. We therefore alarmed residents to what was happening. We organised a Committee for the Defence and Conservation of Water. By distributing flyers, making loudspeaker announcements, door-to-door visits to speak to people directly, and protesting, we thankfully managed to stop the works. We took to the streets and there were two clashes with the police. Although many people were arrested at that time, the community stood firm in its wish to protect its water sources. We also submitted two appeals until the Fourth Chamber (the Supreme Court of Justice) ordered the suspension of the works". In addition, the government was obligated to complete new technical studies with the participation of citizens if the project was to be resumed.

Danger not over yet

The financial crisis put a halt to many projects and meant a few years of peace for Sardinal. However, in recent years construction has resumed and once again pressure has returned to restart the works to channel the Sardinal aquifer to supply several tourism and residential projects that want to open up in the area again. Gadi Amit, president of the environmental association Confraternidad Guanacasteca, argues that the project remains the same. “Entrepreneurs are back in full swing now and want to consolidate and complete projects. This ambition has been aided by the current political crisis in Costa Rica involving corruption and misgovernment, enabling them to evade laws and justice. The project has become "necessary" because they have legally or illegally connected at least 1500 condominiums. And they are selling them without having the water supply guaranteed, which is why we are saying that they are scamming their buyers. That is why the water demand increased in an extremely vulnerable coastal aquifer. They are over-exploiting it and soon it will be salinised".

There are already several communities that are living with the effects of the salinisation of their aquifers. "In the coastal areas of the district of Sardinal they salinised the Playa Panamá aquifer as a result of overexploitation by hotels, and left the communities without water, who are now dependent on other communities giving them water", stated Eunice.

Renewed Resistance

At the end of 2017, after a decade of suspension, the Sardinal aqueduct construction works resumed. Eunice Contreras, who once again heads the community's opposition group in Sardinal assures that they were not informed that new studies had been completed and that they believe that it "is reckless that the aquifer system is being explored without having the technical certainty of how much water it contains. We are scared of being left without water, as the pipes measure over half a metre wide. In addition, global warming and the risk of drought that Guanacaste faces are not taken into account. This aqueduct is a huge threat to the community".

After several protests, which once again resulted in confrontations between the police forces and residents of the community, several people being arrested and intense repression, in December last year a dialogue was opened up between the government and the community. However, the community leaders are not showing much hope: "A few days ago we met up and they had to give us the documents from the new up-to-date technical studies, but they told us that they had not completed them and only had ongoing monitoring of the aquifer system in place", explained Eunice.

Gadi Amit also expressed his disappointment, "Although we managed to open up a dialogue in which the government participated with a Minister and the leaders of the Costa Rican Institute of Water Supply Systems and Sewerage Systems, it is all a bit of a lie. The government is only looking to buy itself time. It is a space for dialogue between unequal parties. Moreover, the works are continuing and the aqueduct is almost finished. Legal appeals do not work." The community of Sardinal wants to carry on fighting. "We will continue to take to the streets if necessary", assured Eunice. They are considering whether they need to take their claim to all of the national and international appeals courts for what they consider to be a clear breach of their human rights.

The Need to Limit Tourism

For many communities, the growth of tourism has become a threat to their livelihoods. There is an increasing need to limit the spread of tourism in one way or another. The idea to impose a moratorium on new water concessions for tourism and commercial exploitation purposes was proposed in a pastoral letter dated 19 June 2009 by Monseñor Vitorino Girardi of the Diocese of Tilarán-Liberia. Increasing numbers of residents from many Guanacaste coastal communities are expressing their objection to the construction of more tourism and residential projects. "The problem is that they are not helping to improve the lives of the residents. They are demanding a lot of investment in infrastructure that only benefits the few investors", said Gadi Amit.

Ernest Cañada is the coordinator of "Alba Sud”, an independent centre of research specialized in responsible tourism and decent work, and associated lecturer at Barcelona University.

Translated from Spanish by Carla Davidson

Edited by Christina Kamp

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