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Ensuring a reliable supply of drinking water in Central America

May 15, 2015

Researchers are working with community-based water supply organizations in Central America to improve their reliability and reach in the face of climate change.

Community-based water supply organizations (CBWSOs) play a key role in distributing water across Central America for household consumption. Nearly 24,000 of them provide potable water to 60% of rural populations in this region (roughly 11 million people). However, water availability is decreasing due to population growth and climate change impacts (including higher temperatures and longer droughts). The long-term sustainability for many CBWSOs is at risk.

IDRC-funded research led by the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE) is investigating how CBWSOs can best respond to these challenges. Using a combination of mapping and modelling techniques, researchers analysed how climate change may affect water availability across the region, with a focus on Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Results so far indicate that by 2050, actual water availability will increase by about 20% along parts of the Caribbean coast for the countries under study. However, water availability for the majority of the Pacific coast will decline by about 20% within the same timeframe.

Understanding the problem

Through detailed surveys with 300 CBWSOs and 9,000 households, the research team assessed current CBWSO operation and performance. Results show that many CBWSOs lack information about how current and future impacts of climate change will affect their operations. Also, there is a high degree of variability in the ability of CBWSOs to provide reliable water supply to users. Some are highly efficient and supply water 24 hours a day; others can only do so for 2-3 hours per day. In most cases, a lack of organizational management and administrative skills was cited as the main cause for the inability to provide uninterrupted water service. Many CBWSOs also face financial difficulties, with insufficient funds to maintain, repair, and/or replace water infrastructure. Many have also become over-reliant on external funding sources, placing their long-term sustainability at risk.    

Solutions to improve performance and water supply

The research team is now examining how CBWSOs can improve their performance and provide better water services in the future. In some cases, technical solutions are needed: use of metering, for instance, allows CBWSOs to more accurately measure consumers’ water usage and to set appropriate fees. Combined with improved budgeting and financial management, this will enable them to fund equipment purchase and repair, and better manage operational expenses. Other solutions include investing in water storage tanks or using technologies to locate new sources of groundwater. Where water availability at source remains a problem, CBWSOs can work with communities and consumers on water conservation measures, and when necessary, on water rationing.   Survey results also show that skills development and training are key to improving overall efficiency and performance. In Costa Rica, for example, over the last 10 years some CBWSOs that invested in new boreholes could not properly operate them due to technical complexities in their design and construction. Appropriate training will ensure that CBSWOs have the technical skills to support investments in water infrastructure. CBSWOs will also benefit from skills development in financial administration, organizational governance, operational management, and business development. Targeting training at young community leaders will encourage them to take an active role in CBWSOs and to contribute to their long-term viability.

Sharing findings to influence change

The researchers are actively engaging with local, national, and regional partners to share findings and help to ensure that CBWSOs continue to play a central role in water provision in Central America. For instance, they are negotiating an agreement with the Costa Rica Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers (the country’s water governing body) that will include a series of training workshops. They are also developing an audio-visual program and a documentary to highlight the challenges faced by CBWSOs in improving efficiency and adapting to climate change, and to encourage community participation in assisting them to do so.   The project is also analyzing how government departments, the private sector, and external funding agencies can make strategic investments in CBWSOs. Findings suggest that focusing on the fundamentals (i.e., improved governance, operations, and financial management) will best enable CBWSOs to provide reliable and efficient water supply in the face of increasing demand from population growth and decreasing water availability.

The project "Adapting Community-Based Water Supply in Central America to a Changing Climate" is funded through IDRC's Research Initiative on Adaptation to Climate Change in Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean with funds from the Government of Canada's fast-start financing.   Bill Morton is an Ottawa based writer.   Photo (right): CATIE
Water tanks will help community-based water supply organizations to increase water services in the face of climate change in Central America.
  Watch an interview with researcher Roger Madrigal