Saturday, April 5, 2008

NICARAGUA: Houses Without Water or Water Without Houses?

The headline given to this very timely article is somewhat misleading. There is no inherent reason why Nicaraguans must choose between their water and construction jobs.

Why should a city of well over one million people have to bow down to a gang of capitalist investors and land speculators and drink their piss? They are literally defecating in the city’s main water supply, the underground aquifers to the southeast of the city.

This is only one of countless examples of savage assault on our natural environment and public health by greedy capitalist groups. We need only recall the mercury poisoning of the rivers in the mines region by Canadian and US firms -- destroying the health and food sources of Mayangna and Miskitu indigenous peoples in those areas. That too was done in the name of jobs, but it was not about jobs. It was gold – carted off the North and generating record profits for Canadian and US billionaires. The miners remained poor and died young, mostly from lung diseases.

Access to clean water is a key issue not just in rural Nicaragua, but also in a great many neighborhoods in the capital, and in other major cities of the country. The previous government was on the verge of privatizing water services in Nicaragua. One of the first actions of the Ortega government was to scuttle that planned rip-off. He appointed to woman consumer advocate who had led the national campaign against water privatization -- Ruth Selma Herrera -- to head the state water and sewage facility (ENACAL).

Not surprisingly, she is now a major target of the oligarchy's political parties, their newspaper La Prensa, and their many TV and radio outlets. They sing sweet lullabies to the environment when in the mood, but whenever it comes to a choice between profiteering and protecting the environment they know which side they are on. They are class conscious.

We need to learn a lesson from them.

We need to be not just Nicaraguan nationalists (which they are not), but class conscious internationalists who defend the interests of working people in the cities and on the land. We are the vast majority. Our interests are not opposed to Mother Earth.

Felipe Stuart

By José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Apr 1 (IPS) - Authorities in Nicaragua are facing the dilemma of generating thousands of jobs through the development of the construction and real estate industry in the capital or putting a priority on future water supplies for the city’s 1.2 million people.

The debate broke out in February, when five city governments in Managua and surrounding suburbs agreed to adopt a ban on the construction of housing units to the south of the city, a rural, forested area where the underground water reserves that supply the capital are located.

Managua Mayor Dionisio Marenco, the main sponsor of the ban, told IPS that for 17 years, development companies have been clearing the forests in that area and building housing projects with little government oversight.

"In the name of free enterprise and progress, they have hurt the city’s water resources and the country," said the mayor. "In that area, they have destroyed forests without any controls, levelled the land, made sources of water disappear and polluted the water reserves that are going to supply the city for the next 30 years."

The mayor complained that the companies have not respected building regulations, have dumped construction industry debris and sewage, which leak into the underground water reserves, and have ignored safety measures in sewage treatment plants.

The declaration of a development ban had the support of the town councils in El Crucero, La Concepción, Managua, Nindirí and Ticuantepe, and of the president’s office, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) and the state-run water and sewage company (ENACAL).

ENACAL president Ruth Selma Herrera reported that 355 urban developments are under construction in the area encompassed by the building ban, which have reportedly not presented the water treatment infrastructure feasibility studies that must be approved before construction begins.

She also said the companies use the water without paying for the connections or the service, even though the country’s legislation establishes that water supplies belong to the state and are subject to oversight by the relevant government agencies.

"They do business without paying, without making rational use of the water, while polluting it and refusing to bring their construction projects to a halt," Herrera told IPS.

Because of the deforestation, chaotic urban growth around the capital, and lack of investment in the city’s sewage and water systems over the last 17 years, "there are areas in Managua where we can't pump water and we have to ration it up to 12 hours a day, while the companies pollute and exhaust the water supplies day after day," said Herrera.

The decision by the environmental and municipal authorities drew an angry reaction from the Chamber of the Construction Industry and the real estate industry.

Alfonso Silva, president of the Chamber of Real Estate Developers, said the industry, which invests around 200 million dollars a year, generates employment for 25,000 heads of households and reduces the pressing housing shortage in the country.

"Nicaragua has an over 30 percent unemployment rate and a deficit of more than 500,000 housing units. In these conditions of extreme poverty, we cannot be hindering development and hurting the economy," Silva told IPS.

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. According to a January 2007 United Nations report, 47 percent of the population was living in poverty and 15 percent in extreme poverty.

"We are aware that the country must protect its natural resources, but it must do so without affecting investment and development. If a company fails to live up to the rules of the game, it should be punished, but we should not all be punished," argued Silva.

Lawmaker Agustín Jarquín Anaya, an ally of the leftist governing Sandinista Front, told IPS that the ban on housing construction in the area in question is "healthy and commendable," but said alternatives for the private investment projects affected by the measure should be explored.

"We should not be so drastic. Alternative solutions that seek to preserve water sources and that do not affect the country’s economic growth should be sought," he added.Cirilo Otero, president of the Centre for Research on Environmental Policy, said the problem is complex because of the high levels of poverty in the country.

"On one hand Nicaragua has assumed the environmental commitments included in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but on the other, it has to respond to the people’s need for jobs," he said.

Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2000, the eight MDGs, which set a 2015 target date, are to halve extreme poverty and hunger from 1990 levels, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and maternal health, reduce child mortality, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development.

To meet the MDGs, Nicaragua will have to provide clean water and sanitation to 2.5 million people by 2015.

But little progress has been made towards that MDG. A report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), presented in Managua last year, stated that 70 percent of Nicaraguans lack access to clean water.

Víctor Campos, an expert in water resources at the Humboldt Centre, a local environmental organisation, said Nicaragua’s water supply problems are not caused by actual shortages.

"If there’s anything that Nicaragua has it is water: 15 percent of the territory is liquid. The entire country is an enormous aquifer; what is needed is the know-how, investment and research to exploit our water sources," said Campos. (END/2008)

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