Sunday, November 26, 2006

What Costa Rica's Water and Toll Booths Have in Common

In parts of Costa Rica, especially where we have lived in Escazu and now further west in Ciudad Colon, there is a serious water problem in the summertime. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise; real estate agents will be the first to say, "No! There is no water problem here, where did you ever get that crazy idea?" They lie. Anyway, when we lived in Escazu (San Antonio up the mountain, to be exact-ish), and now in Ciudad Colon, we were/are on the municipal water supply provided by A y A (which stands for Aquaducts and something else beginning with an A). AyA has this brilliant plan to curb water use by simply cutting it off during peak usage hours of the day -- thus we have had no muni water from about 8 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon for about a week, including today (Sunday). This to me seems an incredibly dumb idea -- it does nothing to teach people how to conserve water, it simply keeps them from using it for several hours each day. Then, when the water comes back on, everyone does their laundry, cooking, showering, dishwashing, toilet-flushing, etc. etc. as they would have if the water had been on in the first place. Right now, as I write this, we have no water, yet the guy across the street is watering his exceptionally green lawn. Why? Because he has a well and apparently feels no particular need to conserve water. Conservation? We don't need no stinking conservation!

How does this help anything, really? When I lived in California, especially during the drought years of the 90s, the water company handed out long lists of ways to conserve water (who can forget "If it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down!"), as well as introduced graduated rates for water usage. If you used an average amount of water, you got changed an average rate; if you conserved a lot, your water bill really went down; and if you used too much, your water bill skyrocketed. Why not implement a similar system in Costa Rica? I can venture two guesses: 1) It's too difficult. Such a system would need to be approved by Congress, undoubtedly, then approved by Sala IV, and on and on into infinity until the country was pumping in desalinated seawater or reclamined grey water. 2) Many people still do not have metered water (can you even believe this?) -- we don't have a meter. We pay the same rate (currently around $5 every month) for using as much water as the farm next door. How is that fair? I would much rather pay a fair rate for the water I use and have access to it 100% of the time. Item #2 contributes to the difficulty in getting item #1 passed. When faced with a difficult situation, Costa Rican government and governmental entities will take the easy route, not necessarily the best route.

What most people do is to get a large water tank installed on their property (we have our own well here, so we don't have a water tank, but I don't know how people around here live only on the muni water supply). When it rains or when AyA decides to turn the water back on, the tank fills up, and then when it is dry or when AyA decides to shut the water supply off, your water simply comes from the tank. So basically no one is conserving, they are just using their "stockpiled" water. This, I predict, will come back and bite Costa Rica in the collective ass in 5-10 years, perhaps even sooner, as the world's clean water supply continues to diminish.

A similar situation can be found on Costa Rica's highways every weekday afternoon, for example, on the highway from San Jose to Escazu and Santa Ana. The toll is 75 colones during most of the day, except at rush hour, when THERE IS NO TOLL AT ALL! Why? There are too many cars! God forbid people actually sit in line at the toll booth, perhaps contemplating their over-dependence on cars or why there are so many single-car drivers crowding the highways during rush hour in the first place. Here's a thought: How about having one lane that is free during rush hour but only open it to buses or carpools (cars carrying two or more riders)? The other lines have to pay an extra fee, say a flat 100 colones rate for everyone, so the toll booth operators do not have to make too much change and the lines of cars can move at a slightly quicker pace. Right now, buses share the lanes with every other car and truck on the road, and there is absolutely no incentive for taking cars off of the road. The air pollution in this country, particularly in San Jose, is unbelievably bad (think Los Angeles before smog controls). It's disgusting. These ideas I've put out there are not new; in fact, California did them in some parts of the state last time I drove there. But here in Costa Rica it is a different story. Until the air quality is so bad that the environmental ministry has to order "stay indoors" days will anything be done about the ridiculous number of cars on the road, especially the vast number of single-car drivers (driven by people who do the most complaining about the traffic).

I will hear some people say that I'm comparing apples to oranges, but I don't think that is the case. I'm comparing common-sense ideas for conservation and pollution reduction to knee-jerk reactionary thinking without sufficient prior planning. Yet, I know there isn't a politician out there who will listen, so it makes little difference in the long run. Sigh...

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