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In Costa Rica, a country globally recognized for the success of its environmental protection efforts, the sustainable and effective governance of water has become a quickly rising priority. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dry tropic of Guanacaste Province. At least 65 water conflicts (defined by legal action taken by one or more parties against another party) between 1997 and 2006 were documented in Guanacaste—one water conflict every 56 days in a land area slightly smaller than Los Angeles County with a population thirty times smaller.1

Guanacaste was Costa Rica’s last frontier for development. It was known for its cowboys, heat, and bumpy roads. Today, a population that has increased five-fold since 1950, an economy that is increasingly open to global markets, and the continued expansion of irrigated agriculture and tourism infrastructure have created intense competition for water resources. Guanacaste also accounts for a large amount of Costa Rica’s foreign direct investment, agricultural production, and electricity generation. A more sidelined province on the national political stage, Guanacaste may not have the influence it should with the capital’s water politics.2 Regardless, how water is governed in Guanacaste will play an important role that helps determine the sustainability of Costa Rica’s future.

The country’s institutional and regulatory framework for water governance has not been altered significantly in over half a century, with the Ley de Agua (Water Law) virtually unchanged since 1942. The Ley de Agua defines water as a public good and the Constitution protects citizens’ rights to a healthy and clean environment. However, legal loopholes (water is not currently defined as a human right, despite being a public good), the proliferation of public organizations, confusion over agency responsibilities, and ill-defined governing roles have created a fragmented system of water governance.3 The system is prone to corruption, unresponsive to citizens, and disconnected from many basin- and community-based water managers. These troubles combine to make the current water governance system poorly equipped to handle the urgent and multifaceted water challenges of the twenty-first century.4 Despite repeated efforts at reform in recent years, each one has stalled in the Asamblea Legislativa, which makes the final decision on reform proposals.5

The 2008 economic recession and the ensuing slowdown of development in Guanacaste have offered a chance to revisit and re-imagine water governance. Despite hurdles at the national level, efforts to create a new model of water governance are underway. Here we recount the progress and insights from one of these efforts—a project titled Toward Sustainable Governance of Water Resources in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. This project, based out of Arizona State University and in partnership with the Comisión para el Manejo de las Cuencas Potrero-Caimital (Potrero-Caimital Watershed Management Commission), focuses on water governance research that is integrated with outreach to engage citizens, administrators, scientists, and lawmakers. A major effort of the project was organizing and leading a collaborative workshop—one the largest events for regional water governance in recent years—to help inform a proposed action plan for sustainable water governance in the region.

Hoping for a Water Solution in La Esperanza6,7

The rural community of La Esperanza in the Municipalidad de Nicoya, a population of 800, has been without running water for months. The water problem in La Esperanza illustrates the inefficiencies of water governance in Guanacaste, and in Costa Rica generally. An earthquake in September 2012 damaged the community’s aquifer and wells. In December, when the rains stopped, the damaged wells ran dry. Response has been slow. There is a large well nearby, but it is on private land, and the local rural water administrator does not have the technical or financial resources to resolve the issue, a problem compounded by poorly coordinated public agencies with overlapping responsibilities. The Municipalidad, under direction of the mayor, is now leading efforts with public agencies to take charge of the issue, though the case is outside its responsibilities. Regional governments have been increasingly active and willing to lead resource governance, which may indicate that positive change is on the horizon.


Christopher Kuzdas
Representatives from the water sector in Guanacaste participate in the first collaborative workshop on sustainable water governance.

The Collaborative Workshop

On March 14, 2013, 46 individuals from 18 Guanacaste communities participated in the region’s first collaborative workshop on water governance. Participants represented eleven rural water administrators (ASADAs), six public agencies, regional governments, tourism, agriculture, community groups, and environmental groups. The positions that participants held in the public water sector ranged from agency directors to part-time water administrators in communities with fewer than 1,000 people. Participants worked together to build five future scenarios of water governance, identify water governance priorities that determined whether a scenario was sustainable or not, assess the sustainability of each scenario, and develop strategies to avoid negative, and achieve the best, outcomes.

Workshop participants agreed on five governance priorities needed to achieve water sustainability in the region. First, governance must be well coordinated among different local and regional actors. Second, decisions must be made in transparent and open forums. Third, policies should be flexible based on changing human needs and environmental conditions. Fourth, groundwater resources should be secured within natural limits. Finally, commitments must be obtained to support effective regional and basin-scale organizations. These priorities were considered key to achieving a sustainable model of water governance in Guanacaste, one that supports healthy communities, distributes water fairly, and ensures ecosystem integrity and economic opportunity.

Participants worked in small groups to develop governance strategies based on these five priorities. Their strategies described actions to be taken, potential leaders and resources, and expected barriers to success. Following the workshop, the research team and partners in the Comisión para el Manejo de las Cuencas Potrero-Caimital synthesized the results into the following systematic action plan, which identifies four different action items, potential barriers to each, and ways to overcome those barriers.

A New Era of Cooperation in the Mala Noche?

There is nearly one autonomous rural water administrator (ASADA) for every 2,000 people in Costa Rica, so cooperation among river basins can be a challenge. The 28-square-kilometer Mala Noche sub-basin, located near the town of Sámara in Nicoya County on the Pacific Coast, has three ASADAs in conflict with each other over development projects, water rights, and private interests.8 All the Mala Noche ASADAs, along with eight others, attended the workshop. The ASADA representatives exchanged contact information and a new leader volunteered to serve as the central contact for under-funded ASADAs that lack adequate communications equipment. During the workshop, the Mala Noche ASADAs were also invited to participate in the County of Nicoya’s new coordination platform. The future looks positive for water cooperation in the Mala Noche. But the question remains: will pubic agencies and lawmakers fully commit to and invest in these grassroots water governance efforts?

Investment in the human element of water governance. Progress toward sustainable and effective water governance depends on investment in human resources, which presents at least two opportunities in Guanacaste. Communications equipment: Coordination requires effective communication. Many ASADAs in Guanacaste lack basic communication equipment. Water governance would look very different if every ASADA could be reached (and reach others) through email, phone, or social media. National leadership must consider investing in communications equipment for Guanacaste ASADAs. Cooperation venues: Coordination requires effective cooperation, and effective cooperation requires healthy professional and working relationships. The workshop we led could be replicated for less than $1,000. The cost could be split between participating organizations and led annually by regional and community actors. The event could help participants refine water governance strategies for communication and cooperation, report on strategy implementation, and solidify working relationships.

Admittedly, use of some communications equipment, especially the Internet, email, and social media, might be a challenge for ASADA personnel who are unaccustomed to it. But effective communication is an important precursor to new cooperation venues. Additionally, as a new generation rises into the workforce, technological barriers are falling; ASADAs could also develop student internships to expedite the process of technological integration. Over time these internships could turn into highly competitive and desired learning opportunities for young citizens. And to build a venue for cooperation: until a water-specific venue is institutionalized in the region, the new public sector coordination platform in Nicoya, led by the mayor’s office, could function as a temporary one.

Investment in small-scale monitoring equipment. Though discussing and negotiating water needs is critical for basin-scale cooperation in Guanacaste, this is very difficult to do without knowledge of how much water is going where and for what purpose. National and regional leadership should fund and distribute water meters for Guanacaste ASADAs and openly share information with community and regional leaders on how much water is being allocated to tourism and agriculture.

A core barrier is likely to be the weak political will of national organizations to fund monitoring equipment for small-scale water management in rural areas. The open sharing of water-use information with communities may also be seen as a political risk in light of recent conflicts between large water users and communities. Nevertheless, a unified voice from ASADAs would be politically difficult to ignore.

To overcome spare political will, regional agency offices can share existing equipment. ASADAs within a basin or sub-basin could also pool resources to purchase communal water meters. Water use data for large-scale tourism and agriculture exists, but not in one place. Sharing this information in real time would require access to an open database and the Internet (i.e., communications equipment). To help defray the investment in communications infrastructure, a regional task force for ASADAs could help locate new revenue opportunities, like fee or tax restructuring at the municipal level or stiffer penalties for individuals who do not pay their water bills.


Christopher Kuzdas
Several of Guanacaste’s rural water administrators discuss scenarios for water governance at the workshop.

Legal commitment to basin-scale planning for water resources. If people in Guanacaste are to govern their water resources sustainably, they must have the legal backing and authority to do so. With administrators from the Guanacaste water sector, national leadership should embark on a transparent process to devolve more authority to basin-wide and regional water managers.

Changing laws at a national scale often requires dealing with corruption, the influence of powerful interest groups, and significant bureaucratic red tape. This step might also threaten special interests that benefit politically or financially from weak basin-scale management.

Municipalidades, many of which are allied with ASADAs and community groups, could modify the purpose and implementation process of regional regulatory plans that undergo regular updates. Such actions could help to avoid the barriers of national-level bureaucracy and powerful special interests. With some legal adjustments, these plans could be used to lay the groundwork for basin-oriented water resource planning. National allies, such as the Programa de Gestión Integral del Recurso Hídrico, have been pushing for basin-scale planning in Costa Rica and could be called upon to support these efforts in Guanacaste.

Investment in a pilot project that incorporates the above points in Nicoya. A pilot project in Nicoya County would be inexpensive and provide valuable insight into the most effective and feasible way to implement these actions across Guanacaste. A pilot project would also face barriers: Uncertainty about the ability to communicate, coordinate, and disseminate the results of such a project could inhibit commitment from actors who don’t yet trust governing processes. Potentially divided interests within the region might also hinder the willingness of stakeholders to invest their effort, time, and resources into these collaborative projects.

To help circumvent these challenges, already-vested communities could identify leadership teams to pool their resources. They could start small, and then develop a system of accountability and expectations, like attending meetings regularly, following through, and being responsive, in order to secure full commitment from stakeholders. The mayor’s office in Nicoya recently implemented a new accountability system to ensure participation in regional meetings, and it could serve as a model. Investment in communications infrastructure is also a key action to help improve trust in and commitment to new governing processes and experiments.

An Engaged and Integrated Research Approach

Major progress has been made in recent decades to identify the common factors of success in resource governance systems.9,10 In the water sector, decision-makers increasingly face daunting challenges driven by dwindling water supplies, growing demand, and highly complex institutions. As a result, research on water governance may be out-of-sync with the professional needs of decision-makers.11 In Costa Rica, we found that decision-makers are enthusiastic about research results that offer actionable knowledge.12 In 2012, we delivered a report to the Comisión para el Manejo de las Cuencas Potrero-Caimital that was used to secure partial protection of a groundwater reserve in one area. But our partners in the commission reminded us that the research contained in the report, although helpful, was not necessarily informative about ways to address the more challenging water issues in the region over time. We have since integrated research on the current state (how things are), possible future states (to identify goals), and governance strategies (to help achieve goals). Our partners in the Comisión now model this integrated approach in their watershed planning efforts, which in 2013 will be expanded to cover the Río Quirimán province in Nicoya.


The town of Tamarindo in Guanacaste. Regional leaders and communities are in a position to support national water reform through local action.

Looking Ahead

Progress is already evident in Guanacaste. Participants at the workshop, many of whom had not worked together before, exchanged contact information, suggested ideas, and offered resources to those who needed them throughout the day. One regional agency offered its extra water meters to several ASADA representatives. Another group offered access to extensive studies of groundwater reserves in one particular area. A contact list of participants was distributed to those in the group. Potential new leadership for the region was identified, and one participant offered to serve as the primary point of contact for ASADAs that could not be easily reached in the region. Another participant extended invitations to the larger group to join the new coordination platform in Nicoya. Much work nevertheless remains.

A key step moving forward will be to unify, to some extent, the water reform efforts at both a regional (Guanacaste) and national scale. To help jumpstart this step, our team distributed a document outlining the four action items to workshop participants, to national water sector leaders, and to members of the Asamblea Legislativa. Our team has also distributed material based on our research to a variety of groups through fax, newspaper, radio, email, social media, and community events. These efforts have shed light on key considerations for leaders in the region, who will take on the responsibility to:

  1. Balance the need for new organizations and institutions in an already saturated and complex public (water) sector
  2. Identify the resources (financial, personnel, and technical) that already exist in the region
  3. Make a joint, timely effort to push for amending the Constitution to define water as a universal human right
  4. Establish processes to collectively define development goals at the regional or local scale
  5. Document, evaluate, and modify action plans and strategies as needed.

Guanacaste leaders and communities are in a position to make a unified push for national water reform while simultaneously implementing actions to advance water sustainability from within the region. Progress is already being made. Guanacaste can move forward despite the failure of national lawmakers to modify water policies in light of citizens’ needs. When water reform does happen—and with enough momentum it eventually will—Guanacaste will be in a position to capitalize on current water sustainability efforts.

The path to a sustainable water future in Costa Rica therefore must go through Guanacaste. Guanacastecos know that. They are working to create new model of water governance. But the question still remains: when will the rest of the country—and its national leaders—realize this and get on board?


We are very grateful to our partners and friends in Guanacaste who are leading efforts to create a new and sustainable model of water governance in the region. The U.S. National Science Foundation (Award #1227305), the Organization for Tropical Studies, and various programs at Arizona State University, including the Martinson Sustainability Solutions Program, provided financial support for the work that we have presented here. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Christopher Kuzdas

Christopher Kuzdas, Ph.D., is the project lead for Toward Sustainable Governance of Water Resources in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. He is an associate researcher with the Latin American Chair of Environmental...


Mariel Yglesias

Mariel Yglesias is the project coordinator for Toward Sustainable Governance of Water Resources in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. She holds a master's of science in forest management and is a trained biologist....


Benjamin Warner

Benjamin Warner is a civil and hydrological engineer and is a contributor to Toward Sustainable Governance of Water Resources in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. He can be reached at

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