Costa Rica is supposed to be lush, muddy, and biodiverse. My new home, Potrero, is different. Here, dust comes out of the tap, and water restrictions rule. The locals leave buckets out in hopes of rain. The rain never comes. The first warning sign occurred seventeen years ago when students at the University of Costa Rica found the region’s aquifers to be “threatened by over-exploitation.” Yet, business continued as usual until, in 2014, the water company AyA seized control of Potrero’s water facility from ASADA, a community development organization.
For reference, in 2007, AyA had been sued for granting water use permits without actually knowing how much water was in town aquifers. According to locals, the company favors 'gringos.' Indeed, AyA quickly siphoned water from Potrero to Las Catalinas, a resort down the road. When protests erupted over the matter, the national police stepped in.
Outraged, the town of Potrero sued AyA. Favoring development, the court ruled in the corporation's favor. The locals were devastated. Risking their livelihoods and health, they opted to protest again, despite the police presence. Then, the press caught on and protests spread across the country. Everybody was talking about AyA's hostile takeover; Even presidential hopefuls spoke out.
In a full-hearty attempt to silence the bad PR, AyA sued ASADA for civil disobedience. In a shocking turn of events, the initial court ruling, which favored the corporation, was overturned. Thus, AyA was ousted. Potrero's locals lined the streets, dancing and singing in celebration. The whole country seemed to be cheering.
However, the celebrations were cut short. Even under ASADA, water distribution was inequitable. Within months, Las Catalinas and the surrounding tourist areas allegedly controlled over 65% of Potrero's water--at least that's what the townsfolk say. While the exact figures are unknown, there is a clear water disparity.
For starters, resorts and expat homes do not face water restrictions. This enables the growth of abundant vegetation, the upkeep of infinity pools, and the luxury of long showers. Meanwhile, the taps of Potrero are shut off for scheduled periods of 5-10 hours daily, and often much longer. Visually, the difference is stark: On my morning jog, I see patches of jungle-like tropics on the outskirts of scorched yellow earth.
Despite the obvious inequality, the protests didn't last. I asked my neighbor Maria why: “People got tired and the country moved on,” she said in Spanish. Besides, “the burden always falls on us, the women.” The women are also tasked with childcare, house cleaning, and work (if they’re lucky). Potrero is Costa Rica’s last frontier. With only 300 residents and 2 stunning shorelines, the foreigners are flocking to town.
Potrero's residents apply in mass to the hotels, restaurants, and stores that have been built on the farms they used to work, but are denied. The new jobs go to more privileged Costa Ricans: those from cities who’ve finished high school. While Costa Rica’s education system soars, the children of Potrero spend an average of 2 hours a day in school and attend only 84 days per year. Most can’t read or write in Spanish, much less speak in English, which is a necessary skill in Costa Rica's service economy.
So, along with an influx of tourists and expats, Potrero is also receiving buses of new workers from outside of town. Thus, Potrero’s population is burgeoning while its already dwindling water level is shrinking. The resulting mammoth gap between supply and demand is rocketing 3rd party water prices. This means the locals, who have water restrictions and are therefore forced into buying bottled water, are actually paying more for their water than the tourists who have access to free tap water at all hours of the day.
Many Potrero locals feel angry at the outsiders who've come into their town and changed everything for the worse. Some are just depressed- stuck- with nothing to do and no job prospects to reach for. If this were a different type of article, I'd linger on those who are still resilient: the children whose laughter streams into the street from the Town green; the women who find ways to feed their families and organize Rollerblade days in the hut; and the men at the Karaoke bar behind my house, currently singing a Mark Anthony tune off key.
.. But this is not a story of hope. It's a warning. Crime, mental illness, drug abuse, and domestic violence are on the rise. Eventually, the tourists will feel it. When they do, they'll likely leave. Thus, if Costa Rica does not adjust it's water policy and it's development strategy, it's primary economy will lapse. The country must act now to stave of tomorrow’s water war. In the words of my neighbor Maria, "Things are getting worse, much worse," and "men turn to beasts when there's nothing left to lose."