Friday, May 26, 2017

Is Costa Rica the Future?

Several years ago, we decided to take a leap and quit our jobs and move to another country, preferably a Spanish speaking country. While we were trying to decide where to move our family and open a business, I ordered 3 books; all Frommer'sCosta RicaNicaragua and Ecuador. All books, needless to say were great reads and loaded with valuable, unbiased information which is more than I can say for the internet alone. Undaunted, I continued spending countless nights browsing the internet and reading studies on civics and government; history and growth; economics; potable water and energy development; child safety enforcement laws and schools; agriculture imports and exports; the law in general for expats; residency and immigration law; requirements to start a business, etc.  We studied for 2 years before making the leap. We knew we wanted to live in Latin America, but where? Mexico, too dangerous and while the food is probably the best in my world, you can't drink the water. The beaches are incredibly beautiful, but it is so dangerous - simply out of the question. Ecuador, years of political unrest and very far from our home state of Texas making family visits more stressful, plus private school prices are outrageously high - out. Nicaragua, cheap, but not much infrastructure, there are the Sandanistas and not much of a market for a new business, plus the economy is crippled by the current government leaving most of the citizens impoverished, hungry and jobless. Costa Rica maintains a stable government since the mid 50's and the population has grown from just over 800,000 people to just under 4 million in 2012  (now over 4 million) plus an influx of tourism between 1.5 and 2 million more people per year. They abolished their military in the 1950s to redistribute more funds into the social services, healthcare and education system. There was also countless reports on water safety and safe water practices and efforts in reducing carbon emissions, plus a ban on hunting and further deforestation. Perfect. The more I read about Costa Rica, the more I cared about the efforts this tiny country was making for a better and brighter future, not only for its land, rivers, streams and oceans, but for its people; which significantly is a symbiotic relationship only more so benefiting the humans so focused on destroying the environment. 

A bit of history that I found valuable before making a decision. Costa Rica is only about the size of West Virginia at just over 51,000 sq kilometers and has a volcanic mountainous topography bordering Nicaragua to the North and Panama to the South with both the Caribbean Sea coast to the East and the Pacific Coast to the West. The unique fact is that the marine territory of Costa Rica is more than 10 times its land mass at 573,000 km². The tropical climate boasts temperatures from 60°F or about 18°C in the mountains to a high of  about 97°F or 36°C at the beach with an average of about 80°F or  26°C. The country offers a diverse climate from tropical jungle to dry forests to cloud forests with a variety of local micro climates in between due to different levels of altitude and a varied distribution of precipitation in the atmosphere between the dry season and rainy season. The country is divided into 34 river basins and over 200 volcanoes with 5 being considered active.  The average rainfall in Costa Rica ranges between 1,200 and 7,500 mm a year, which places Costa Rica among the countries with the largest availability of fresh water in the world. The slopes of the land allow water to flow from the rivers into both the Caribbean and Pacific as well as the San Juan River that borders Nicaragua to the North. This river has been a constant area of dispute between the two countries for hundreds of years. Since more than half of the water into the San Juan comes from the run-off of the rainy season, Costa Rica has laid claims to the rights, diverting a tributary into the Colorado River to aid the drier Guanacaste region. In 2009, the UN returned the sovereignty back to Nicaragua upholding the original Cañas -Jerez treaty of 1858. Costa Rica maintains unrestricted use of the river for transportation only. 

With so much rainfall, why is the ever-growing population of Costa Rica beginning to experience pressure on its valuable water resources? With no ability to capture the excess of water running into the oceans and the recent acceleration of agricultural use of land and livestock, combined with a bustling metropolitan growth, the basic natural environmental balance is broken. All this has generated more problems like erosion, loss of ecosystems, and flooding with a reduction in the capacity of the soil to retain water from rains, also common in other parts of the world. What makes Costa Rica different from other Central American countries? Between 1950 and 1980, the GDP (gross domestic product) grew annually 6.5%, surpassing even industrialized countries. They created a larger middle class by improving health and sanitation services, offering primary education available to all, and increasing access to secondary and university level education. These economic and social reforms gave birth to ICE- The Costa Rican Electrical Institute and UCR- The University of Costa Rica, among others. So in less than 60 years, Costa Rica reduced its poverty level, doubled its life expectancy rate, reduced infant mortality by more than 10 times, and constructed democracy , all while living in peace while neighboring countries endured heavy conflict for over 60 years. ICE has since committed to powering the country with hydro-electricity using the abundance of water, placing Costa Rica at the top of the green energy platform proposing a carbon free future. 

Historically, the Costa Rican economy has based development on agriculture: coffee, sugar cane, bananas, rice, beans and cattle. Over the decades, the industrial sector has surpassed the agricultural and service sector and since 1980 has become the most important sector of the GDP. This rise gave way to policies in the 1990s developed to strengthen the sectors that created wealth, tourism and micro-electronic components, bringing large foreign companies to do business in Costa Rica like Intel, Amazon and Microsoft. Recently Costa Rica has even been called the next Silicon Valley. With this new sector of business came a rise in municipality and local governments and needs for local offices. The first Mayors were elected in 2002, changing budget appropriations and responsibilities to the municipalities. This deferment of authority creates a new consideration for local governments regarding zoning for, water, housing, commerce, industry, education, recreation, and public uses provided for by the constitution and National Institute of Housing and Urbanization. This creates a whole level of supervision regarding how to manage the actual water supply system for the population and how to supervise and control exploitation of materials from rivers and beaches as well as any and all contamination, pollution and or protection. There is also Hydro-Electrical Energy production in many of the lakes that has allowed Costa Rica to advance into the carbon free era, but consumes the largest amount of available water. The potential water availability of Costa Rica varies, but constantly has the opportunity to be replenished with each rainy season. This is important because who wants to live in paradise without water? Paradise is relative, but water is essential. 

This is where it gets really cool. Costa Rica is divided into 7 provinces of which are divided into 82 counties. There are three major drainage basins encompassing 34 watershed with many rivers and tributaries, one major lake used for hydroelectric generation, and two major aquifers that serve to store 90% of the municipal, industrial, and agricultural water supply needs of Costa Rica. The water tables are divided into 2 major aquifer systems, the Barva Aquifer and the Upper and Lower Colima. These aquifers are separated by a low permeability layer that acts as an aquitard, which allows for the descending and ascending vertical transfer of water. This has formed naturally and mainly from the Barva Volcano over millions of years. With each eruption and layer of lava, a complex system has been created underground distributing water throughout most of Costa Rica. The water then shoots up, literally percolating from the ground! How awesome is that? The volcano naturally created an aquifer for about half of the rain water to be disbursed. The other half gets dumped into rivers and streams then eventually to the ocean and we haven't figured out how to harness it, yet. Take it from me, we live in a rural area called Cebadilla and fresh spring water runs constantly around us, into lakes, streams and rivers. Just in our backyard there is a fresh water stream that flows constantly. Strange though, just across the Rio Grande, I see the twinkling lights of Atenas and wonder why they sometimes endure a water ration during the dry season, but they are separated by the Rio Grande from the Ojo de Agua, part of the water shed on our side. Guess we chose the right place to live in the event of a doomsday. The owner of the farm where we live actually harnessed the water by building a series of dams and holding wells that he uses for irrigation for his horticulture nursery, or vivero and ranch style subdivision, or quintas

In a perfect world, gas, diesel and coal are no longer needed; plastic is recycled, not produced; farmers will rotate their crops, not use harmful pesticides; the masses can rely on the municipality to manage and treat wastewater instead of relying on the overuse of septic tanks that leak into the groundwater; and we can harness water and solar more efficiently than ever to drive our energy needs. Subsequently, rains will not flood, but seep into the earth regenerating the water tables for that land, and the water naturally underground will be safe, fecal free, nitrate free and abundant, but we are not there yet. Deforestation, overgrazing and human interference has changed the face of the Earth, and Costa Rica. So what does the future hold? Currently, Costa Rica has plenty of water, only using approximately 5% of the available fresh water supply annually. So why are we worried and why do so many people complain that Costa Rica is behind the times and the government does not know what is going on. From my perspective, the government has charged forward and should be proud of the amount of progress and the swift rate of progress. Currently Costa Rica has a Blue Zone in the Nicoya Peninsula boasting more centenarians per capita than anywhere else in the world. That means more men, in particular live over 100 years old, and the national paper recognizes them on the cover.  Is something in the water? Yes! High levels of calcium and magnesium proving that hard water is good for you to drink, but not your appliances and shower heads, go figure. So before we discount the good people governing Costa Rica, remember we are a step ahead of the rest just by caring, because what is more important in life, Keeping up with the Kardashians or sustainable drinking water? 

As I mentioned, we just moved into our new home in a small rural town called Cebadilla located just outside San Jose. Water literally bubbles up out of the aquifer directly under us. This got me thinking what, why, where and how? We have a pool, should I worry about filling it? We are on a well with a pump, but does the entire subdivision run on a well? No, because we are in the first home on what was a farm, we have a well and pump. The subdivision will be managed by the municipality. There are 2 large hydroelectric lakes nearby, one of which is owned by ICE. There are several small community lakes nearby for swimming and recreation, all fresh, spring-fed and abundant. Join my quest, learn more about your drinking water. Find out where it comes from and who manages it and what elements or chemicals it possesses. The more you know, the better the chance for a bright future for your kids and grand-kids. Fundamentally our future depends on clean, available water. Pura Vida!

To learn more about where we live, please enjoy our video. 

I would like to thank the following Sites for their hard work and research: 
The Agricultural Groundwater Revolution: Opportunities and Threats to Development by Karen Vilholth and Mark Giordano
Tárcoles River Basin Costa Rica by Maureen Ballestero 2003

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