Feature Story

Providing access to clean water despite climate change and COVID-19

March 19, 2021

Diley Rojas, woman in Costa Rica, near a water storage container pointing
In Costa Rica a UNDP-supported project funded through the GEF's Special Climate Change Fund is guaranteeing access to clean water. Photo: UNDP Costa Rica/Ignacio Rodriguez

The pandemic continues to reveal the priceless nature of clean drinking water in reducing inequalities. Water is the main defense against COVID-19, and the lack of access exposes people to greater vulnerability, especially women and girls.

According to the United Nations, one in three people in the world lives without clean, potable water. It is projected that by 2040 global demand will increase by more than 50%.

Climate change and environmental degradation has complicated matters even further. Severe droughts, unhealthy forests and watersheds, spiking temperatures and increasingly erratic weather are affecting our ability to access clean, safe, and reliable water.

Taking action in Costa Rica

The government of Costa Rica, in partnership with the Global Environment Facility and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are accelerating actions to ensure universal access to safe water through an ongoing climate change adaptation project that builds climate resilience and empowers local action.

In Costa Rica, around 15,000 people work voluntarily in communal aqueduct associations to ensure access to potable water for about 30% of the rural and peri-urban population. Community water management is one of the country’s greatest strengths, ensuring 97.8% coverage of indoor water. This near universal coverage is critical in reducing health risks for rural communities and preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases.

To provide these services, local community aqueduct associations (ASADAs) face never-ending structural, environmental, and climate-related challenges, which multiplies the merit and the impact of their work on community development and progress.

On the frontlines of Costa Rica’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus and accelerate the ambition of its contributions to the Paris Agreement is the story of a brave woman, mother, and educator who is working to address water shortages due to droughts in her community, and ensure every home has access to safe, clean drinking water.

Diley Rojas began her work as a general member of the local ASADA about 8 years ago. She went on to become president of the association and is the frontlines hero that embodies the spirit of Costa Rica’s efforts to provide every one with reliable access to water – in spite of the dramatic impacts to lives and livelihoods brought on by the climate crisis.

A not-too-distant reality

Can you imagine living in a hot region where water is so scarce during the summer that it only reaches your home for just one hour a day, from 5 to 6 in the morning? To make things even worse, imagine living in a pandemic, where your frontline of defense is handwashing.

You do not have to go too far to experience this harsh reality that greatly affects the daily lives for those that live it. A prime example is Iguanita, a small town located in the Nicoya canton of Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Province. Here in the northwest reaches of the country, the climate crisis has dramatically affected lives and livelihoods. Rivers are almost completely dried out during the summer months, and all the inhabitants – men, women, girls, and boys – have to find imaginative and resourceful ways to access this precious liquid.

The situation could be much worse if it were not for the tireless work of the Iguanita community aqueduct association (ASADA). Led mainly by women – these local groups are responsible for equitable water management among some 90 families.

“Iguanita is a small community with limited income sources, most of the inhabitants are small-scale farmers. In the summer months there are terrible drought conditions and water levels drop significantly. Added to this is population growth,” explains Diley Rojas. Diley is the mother of a young boy and girl, a wife, and a computer teacher in four local public schools. As well as her work as a teacher and a mother, she is also a volunteer at the local ASADA, which can be a demanding and challenging task.

From the beginning, Diley took her commitment to the ASADA very seriously. She started out by learning and training herself on natural springs, pipes, water sectorization, and everything related to her work, which today she knows like the back of her hand. As she puts it, she does her work out of pure love, because she is not paid beyond the satisfaction of knowing that water is reaching every household in her community.

When adaptation and awareness become crucial

“Climate change has had a massive effect on us. The decreased water levels in the natural spring is significant. We have seen effects of this by the end of February for the last six years,” says Diley. When the droughts became more severe, there were sectors that spent up to a month without practically a drop of water.

“We had to implement measures to guarantee an equitable service, even if for only two hours a day. But we had to make sure that everyone in the town received at least some water, every day,” she says.

In addition to installing water meters in order to have better control over consumption, the ASADA implemented a sectorization plan and sometimes had to close the spigots to ensure water for the next day. "Some inhabitants are inconsiderate, they tell me, 'I pay the water bill' and I always answer, 'so does everyone else.'"

It’s the diverse topography of Iguanita that allows the water to reach each household through gravity. Those that live in lower-elevation areas have the greatest possibility of receiving the most water, to the detriment of those who live in higher-altitude areas since low water levels lead to decreased water pressure. Water wasting by the lower-elevation households has improved little by little since Diley has been in charge.

'Yes, women can do it'

In addition to dealing with water shortages and the challenging work of building consensus with community members, Diley and some of her colleagues have also faced the general machismo of those who believe that women should not be involved in this type of work. They even had to face the drivers of the water tanker trucks who couldn’t believe that a woman was in charge of receiving the water.

“It has been difficult because many people still view the role of women in a discriminatory way. I have heard several times, 'what do women know about this?', when we come to check a meter. Foolish words fall on deaf ears. We are showing them with concrete actions that women can effectively manage an ASADA,” she affirms with the utmost confidence.

The Iguanita ASADA has benefited from the support of the Strengthening the capacities of Associations of Rural Aqueducts (ASADAS) to face risks of Climate Change in Communities with Water Stress in Northern Costa Rica project since 2016. The project is implemented by the Costa Rican Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers (AyA) and with support from UNDP and funding from the Special Climate Change Fund of the GEF.

“We have received a lot of help from the UNDP. We got 60 tubes to change the source pipes all the way to the tanks, and about 30 meters that we really needed. They recently came for a technical visit to help us increase and improve storage with new tanks,” explains Diley.

Two women standing next to a water station in Costa Rica
Diley Rojas leads the local water association. Photo: UNDP Costa Rica/Ignacio Rodriguez

A human right in the times of a pandemic

Water equals development and transforms into well-being, dignity, and health. In times of a pandemic, it is even more important to guarantee its supply. That is why Diley´s work, and that of the more than 15,000 community water managers in Costa Rica, is essential.

“In the face of the pandemic the situation has been very complex,” says Diley. “No one's service is being suspended; we make payment arrangements. Likewise, people are very aware. They know that if they don't pay, we won't have funds to maintain the service,” she adds.

At the same time, they have implemented measures to guarantee the continuity of the service while preventing the spread of COVID-19, ensuring ample water, soap, and gel alcohol at the bill collector's home. Mandatory mask use, social distancing for payments, and encouraging community organization so that one individual delivers the payments of several households, are among the numerous COVID-19 prevention measures advanced through the project.

“We have tried to show everyone that women do know. That women can and are very capable of managing and operating an ASADA,” Diley reaffirms. “We know that a water supply can depend on whether a housing bond is granted or not. Our job is to support the development of a small town that has been hit hard by droughts for several years now.”

“Water is a basic human right,” concludes Diley, a brave frontlines climate hero, working every hour of every day to build resilience for community, and a better future for her nation.

This piece was originally published on Exposure by UNDP Climate.