Published Friday, February 12, 2021
Using rainwater in Costa Rica
By Richard Krug
Let’s say you have just bought a property in Costa Rica and are going to build your home here. What are the two basic requirements, among others, that you will need to get a building permit? First, access to electricity. And second, access to water.
Access to electricity – to service offered by one of the two nation-wide public utilities in your area: ICE (Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad) or Costa Rican Institute of Electricity in English and the CNFL (Compañía Nacional de Fuerza y Luz) or National Power and Electricity Company in English, is no problem in urban areas.
In more remote rural areas, especially if your property is off public roads, you come to an agreement with the local public utility. You may have to put up your own posts and string up wires (or use underground conduits) at your own expense from lines along public roads to your home, but thousands of people here have done it already.
Your builder or architect, or even a neighbor, can advise.
Access to potable water, however, especially in more remote rural areas, is often a challenge. Even more serious, the lack of access can prevent you from building altogether! The AyA (Instituto Costarricense de Acueductos y Alcantarillados) or Costa Rican Institute of Aqueducts and Sewage in English is the nation-wide public water utility in Costa Rica.
Even though access to potable water is a guaranteed right, AyA’s vast network still does not provide potable water to many smaller municipalities, rural communities, or remote areas.
Some large municipalities, such as Belén Canton near San José Province, have their own local system of water provision to homes, commerce, and industry. In tiny municipalities and rural areas, however, the usual provider of potable water is the Asada. An Asada is a registered association of 50 or more residents, under AyA supervision, which brings water to its members from a legal local well.
Perhaps the best description of an Asada is a small water cooperative, with its own officers, operating within guidelines set by AyA.
There is a third, but a less attractive option. Homes can receive water from the owner of a local private well with the required capacity to do so. Legally, however, they cannot charge for it, or be compelled to provide water to neighbors. Everything is ‘voluntary’ – if you choose to contribute to maintaining the well owner’s potable water infrastructure, all is good. If not… not so good!
But what if there is no AyA, no local Asada, and no compliant owner of a private well able to provide potable water to your potential home? You’re up a proverbial creek without a paddle. No building permit (unless you dig your own legal well, not always feasible, and always expensive)!
There is a solution, however: off-grid water catchment and/or water fabrication/condensation. Unfortunately in Costa Rica, off-grid potable water is not recognized by the government in order to obtain a building permit. Even if you submit plans with a viable off-grid catchment or a fabrication system that will satisfy your basic water requirements, neither will be accepted when you go to the municipality for your permit.
Why not? This is something that has confounded the author and many others for years! Half the world uses legal water catchment or machines that capture precipitation and/or humidity to create and supply potable water, both on the community and individual level. Off-grid water supply is found everywhere in the developing countries, and in the US, Canada, and much of Europe.
Costa Rica has adequate precipitation and humidity for individuals and even communities currently lacking all of the three above-mentioned legal water sources to ensure a stable and effective supply of potable water. AyA itself did a study showing that there was adequate precipitation to support livestock farming, known as Consultoría SP 16-2009: Estudio de Viabilidad Técnica y Económica Para el Desarrollo de Opciones de Cosecha de Lluvia y Manejo Adecuado en Sistemas de Riego en la Producción Agropecuaria.
So why not allow off-grid for water for private homes? Direct off-grid water catchment is simple; water filters are inexpensive and easily integrated to ensure safe, potable water. It is also ecologically smart. Besides direct water catchment in eaves and storage in cisterns, there are small off-grid systems that generate potable water from the humidity in the air. One of these machines in optimum conditions can produce 500 to 5,000 liters of potable water in a 24-hour period.
So why would AyA and local municipalities not be interested in approving these off-grid methods for individual or community use? Everyone benefits.
First, approval would allow potential homebuilders in remote areas to obtain building permits. AyA could issue licenses and charge an affordable one-time and/or annual license fee for off-grid water catchment and water generation, thus giving it a source of revenue even where there is no AyA infrastructure yet in the area.
Second, to obtain this license, the petitioner would have to sign an agreement with AyA with the proviso that if the off-grid potable water supply ran out, the property owner, and not AyA or the municipality, would be responsible for bringing adequate amounts of water to the property and to those living on it.
Third, and most important, municipalities could then issue more building permits, stimulating local employment in the construction and related trades, and increasing their own needed tax revenues.
Once AyA or an Asada are able to provide water to these areas, residents using their own licensed potable water supply at the time would be required to connect to the metered public provider, while retaining their own off-grid water systems. They could toggle between them when and if necessary or convenient.
The Costa Rica government and its nationwide building code must recognize individual off-grid water systems as sufficient to obtain a building permit wherever there is no AyA infrastructure, where there is no Asada, or where there is no private well owner nearby willing to provide water. This is long overdue.
It is time Costa Rica joined most of the world in accepting and promoting off-grid potable water supply.
Editor's note: Email your comments or inquiries to Richard Krug at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views or opinions expressed by the author is the sole and exclusive responsibility of the sender and do not necessarily represent the opinion of A.M. Costa Rica. Therefore, the newspaper does not accept liability for the reader's opinion article content.