Poor Management of Water Sources Aggravates Impact of Drought in Caribbean

Apr 24, 2019
2:37 PM
Originally published at Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

(Photo by Ralph Pradeus/Le Nouvelliste)

By Patrick Saint-Pré and Mariela Mejía

Leer la versión en español aquí.

The poor management of water sources amid the growing drought pattern that looming climate change has brought to the Caribbean region has kept more than five million people without partial or full access to the vital liquid for the past seven years, at least in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

The situation, which also affects agriculture, threatens to escalate in the coming months due to the negligence by the three countries’ governments to lay down guidelines and maintain infrastructure, as well as inaction in protecting some of their main water resources, according to a joint investigation by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, as it is known for its initials in Spanish), Diario Libre and Le Nouvelliste.

In this context, the exploitation of the private sector and the threat of privatization aggravates the situation.

The most urgent case was detected in Haiti, which faces a lack of drinking water for more than 40% of its 11 million inhabitants, according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF. Exploitation and contamination of water sources are the country’s main challenges.

Scientists from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main international experts on the subject, warned in their last report of mid-2018 that climate change would bring shortages of fresh water to the Caribbean in the next five to 10 years. The same was predicted by scientists of the United States Global Research Program (USGCRP), who for the first time included a chapter dedicated to their territories in the region.

Almost a year after these warnings, the three countries investigated still lack plans to face this crisis.

“Changes in rainfall patterns, freshwater availability and sensitivity to drought make the islands extremely vulnerable,” said the IPCC document on the Caribbean and Pacific islands. Even under the best of scenarios —an additional 1.5° C of warming— the threats related to sea level by salinization, flooding, permanent flooding, erosion, and pressure on ecosystems will persist on the islands,” the report added.

There is not a single country in the Caribbean exempt from this forecast, since the entire region shows abnormal climatic conditions associated with the drought, said NASA Researcher Pablo A. Méndez-Lázaro. Likewise, water expert Félix Aponte-González, who participated in the USGCRP report, said droughts of greater intensity have been recorded since 2012—2016 and 2017 were the driest years in the last 40 or 45 years.

The global crisis of access to drinking water has become such a problem that in many places there is already talk of Day Zero. For instance, Cape Town in South Africa has managed to anticipate this threat with conservation measures, including setting limits on daily water use per person, according to the city’s government. Likewise, since 2001, California has had a law for a water plan for the control, protection, conservation, development and responsible use of water resources for the state. This plan is updated every five years.

The investigation found only one country in the Caribbean that has been developing strategies aimed at seeking sustainability—the island of Dominica. Following Hurricane María’s devastation in 2017, Dominica created the Climatic Resilience Execution Agency (CREAD) with a plan through 2030 that includes water management. This plan incorporates desalination plants with energy generated from the sea, managing to reduce the costs and environmental impact of freshwater production.

The investigation found this to be the exception, not the rule. In the region, the smaller islands have limited freshwater natural resources and some, like Curaçao, Aruba, St. Martin, St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands, use expensive and polluting desalination plants. Although the larger islands have abundant rivers and aquifers, their reserves have diminished, as is the case of Cuba. In addition, the rise of sea levels, associated with climate change, exposes aquifers to contamination due to saline intrusion.

Haiti: No Government and Almost No Water

In Haiti — the poorest country in Latin America and one of the most unequal in the world, according to the World Bank in 2018 — the illegal exploitation of wells, water pollution and misgovernment are three of the problems that affect the availability of the vital resource. The other is the absence of a modern legal framework for water management.

“The government almost does not exist,” said human rights attorney Ellie Happel, who heads the project against mining in Haiti at the Global Justice Clinic of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the NYU Law School. The lawyer said the lack of coordination and water protection projects are two of the main threats to this resource in this country.

Minister of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Rural Development, Jobert Angrand, admitted in an interview that the departments of his ministry, responsible for carrying out studies on the availability and preservation of water resources, are not working.

“These departments are not doing their job,” Angrand said.

In Haiti, many citizens have to walk several kilometers a day to get water. The country has the lowest access rate to water supply and sanitation facilities in the Western Hemisphere. It occupies the last place in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Index of Water Poverty. Despite the need, the country does not have a national policy for the management of water extraction and use.

Pollution is another problem that limits the availability of water in Haiti. The low quality of water became a risk for the population after the 2010 earthquake, when a cholera epidemic spread throughout the country. The epidemic has not ended yet, already claiming more than 10,000 lives. This figure corresponds only to documented deaths, and experts argue that nobody really knows how many more deaths can been attributed to this situation.

“The most immediate risk is the fecal contamination that exists in many areas,” said Paul Christian Namphy, coordinator of the cholera control division for the National Directorate of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DINEPA for its acronym in French).

According to DINEPA’s National Strategy for the Conservation and Treatment of Water in the Home (2018-2027), for the analysis of water quality carried out between 2014 and 2015 in the country’s 10 departments, on more than 300 water resources used to supply the population, 68% of the sources and 29% of the perforations are contaminated by fecal bacteria of human and animal origin (E. coli).

Four laws regulate the resource in Haiti, but they are obsolete. They are not respected or the State does not enforce them. Interviews conducted with government officials show that it is difficult to determine how the sector is organized, who has the power to administer it, which questions the capacity and political will of the leaders.

For example, the president of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, knows that there has been the urgency to formulate a national water policy since 2017, the year when he proposed a reform to reduce environmental risks to water. He also said that it is urgent to better respond to the needs of the population and resolve conflicts between different sectors. Two years later, this has not happened.

Likewise, the director of the Ministry of Environment’s Water Resources Astrel Joseph assured, when interviewed in March, that he was working on a national water plan that included ministries and private companies, but when asked for a copy of a draft submitted to the National Palace of Haiti, he could not produce the document.

Within Haiti’s urban areas, DINEPA’s formal clients —who receive water and pay monthly bills— are the minority of the population. Not all the subscribers receive water at home, and among those who do receive it, there are very few people who have continuous service.

Namphy said one of the main problems is lack of infrastructure and because of this, connecting all homes in Haiti to drinking water service is “a medium- to long-term dream.” For the time being, DINEPA provides its service to clients in metropolitan and rural areas, using different distribution alternatives: through pipelines directly to households (but these are very few); through kiosks where people can go and buy water with a 19-liter (5-gallon) bucket; and by filling cisterns.

On the other hand, there are private ways of buying drinking water, as it is commonly done, especially in the metropolitan areas of Port-au-Prince, by buying water from private trucks, which is more expensive per cubic meter. They also buy bottled and bagged water.

A large part of the Haitian population is vulnerable to getting sick from bacteria found in the water they store individually. (Photo by Ralph Pradeus | Le Nouvelliste)

Exploitation and Lack of Will in the Dominican Republic

On the other side of the border, the lack of control in attending to bodies of water is also evident. In the Dominican Republic —a country that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti— the extraction of sand and gravel from river beds is also done with almost no control by the State.

The complicity and lack of supervision of the authorities —especially by the Dominican Ministry of the Environment— have influenced the degradation of water resources that supply drinking water to greater Santo Domingo and other highly populated regions.

For more than 20 years, initiatives have been promoted in the National Congress for regulations, but the country still has no legislation. In the last 10 years, the Senate’s Environment Commission has favored the discussion of two bills, neither of which have been approved. A subcommittee noted the need to take into account climate change and associated hydrological phenomena, as well as risk management.

Luis Carvajal, coordinator of the Environment Commission of the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo (UASD, for its initials in Spanish) and one of the many who lobbies for legislation, explained that the most recent obstacles have been linked to three factors: interest of the different ministries and departments in managing resources and struggling over which would be the lead institution; advisory services from international organizations, “such as the World and Inter-American Development Banks,” for the privatization of environmental services; and the practice by National Congress to not prioritize this issue in the political agenda.

For the last six months, the Dominican Republic has been affected by a drought. Farmers lost RD $47.6 million (US $952,000) related to the death of 1,190 heads of livestock, said Agriculture Minister Osmar Benítez. Due to the decrease of water stored in reservoirs, a rationing of service was implemented in the National District, where one million inhabitants live. The rains of late March and early April raised the level of some dams, but the official end of the dry season has not yet been declared.

The water management negligence in the Dominican Republic goes back at least to the 1930s when government institutions began to promote the use of water in public projects and the country’s natural hydrological order “began to be modified by the State, at whatever the cost,” according to a 2018 government report.

The use of water resources has been unbalanced because the model was based on meeting the demand generated, the development of irrigation areas, and the growth of the population. This has turned into more demand than availability of water in rivers, causing “a growing shortage in several hydrographic regions,” the document states.

The National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INDRHI for its initials in Spanish) estimates the availability of surface and underground water in the Dominican Republic, a country of almost 11 million inhabitants, at about 25,967 million cubic meters per year. However, due to seasonal variations and unpredictable rainfall patterns, scientists base their predictions on an expectation of minor rainfall occurrence where only 9,494 million cubic meters can safely be counted.

Only 26% of the water available in the country is stored; the rest is not conserved or retained due to lack of infrastructure. The 34 reservoirs are not enough, and INDRHI director Olgo Fernández stressed the need to build another 12 large dams and 52 medium and small dams.

Fernández noted, however, the government didn’t assign funds for the maintenance of the dams in its national budget. This prevents taking actions to extend the useful life of these infrastructures, such as sediment removal. The more sediment, the less capacity to store water.

The Ministry of Environment estimates that 55% of the loss of forest in the Dominican Republic is due to agricultural expansion and 26% to timber extraction, wood and coal production, and other forms of forest products. When the forest is lost and the granulated material is extracted from river beds for the construction industry, the capacity to contain these water resources decreases.

This generates erosion and sedimentation. Rains regularly cause the release of the earth’s crust which ends in rivers. If a river has a reservoir on its route , that sedimentation remains retained in the dam, decreasing storage capacity, energy production and irrigation.

The last water quality and sedimentation study of eight main dams done in the Dominican Republic was carried out in 2016 by the Infraeco consulting firm for INDRHI in Monción, Tavera, Bao, Rincón, Hatillo, Jigüey, Valdesia and Sabana Yegua. The evaluation, which could be worse now three years later, found that the most unfavorable dams in terms of sedimentation were Jigüey and Valdesia, which had lost 24% and 30%, respectively, of their storage capacity.

Valdesia supplies drinking water to approximately 1.4 million inhabitants in the National District and the municipalities of Santo Domingo Oeste and Santo Domingo Norte.

In the absence of budget allocation, the INDRHI director is waiting for a solution that involves the private sector to extract the sediments from the reservoirs. But the initiative has not succeeded. A company was interested in doing it in Valdesia and Hatillo, but the investment was too high, and it withdrew its proposal. The government spent approximately $141 million from 2012 to last March in the maintenance of just five dams, Fernández said.

“The time has come to assume any cost that represents preserving water. What has to happen now is a will to unite all of society behind this,” said the official, who proposes a 20-year national water pact that calls for investing about $2.4 billion (RD $120 billion) in the sector.

“If measures are not taken in the watersheds, a day will come that when it rains, all the water will go directly to the sea, and the dams will be sedimented, and water will go over the dams, and we will lose the water,” said Augusto Rodríguez, a member of the Dominican Geology Society and former executive director of INDRHI.

Nizao River, Dominican Republic. Image from March 2019 (Photo by Pedro Bazil | Diario Libre)

Blind Rationing in Puerto Rico

Although according to several experts, Puerto Rico does have cutting-edge water management laws (unlike the Dominican Republic and Haiti), the fragmentation of water system ownership and responsibilities among different local and federal agencies, as well as the lack of political will, leads to negligence in the storage, distribution and consumption of water.

As a reflection of the problem of poorly maintained and sedimented dams due to government apathy in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico’s problem is even worse, as no studies have been done in the past 15 years to determine the capacity of reservoirs. After Hurricane María — the most intense in Puerto Rico’s modern history — devastated the entire island on September 20, 2017, causing erosion and sedimentation flows, no studies were conducted, although experts warned that it was urgent.

One of those experts was hydrologist Ferdinand Quiñones, who criticized the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA, for its initials in Spanish) for not being diligent in studying how much sediment reached the reservoirs after María. According to their estimates, the reservoirs may have lost more than 12% of their capacity as a result of the atmospheric event.

The authorities in charge of administering these reservoirs —mainly PRASA and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority— have not tried to find out Puerto Rico’s current state of water storage, which according to aquatic ecosystems specialist, José Ortiz-Zayas, means total ignorance about how much more sediment these spaces can hold.

“We are overestimating the availability of water, and in drought conditions, that is critical. If you make a distribution plan based on a presumption of water and what you have is less, you will make a mistake,” said Ortiz-Zayas, a limnologist (a person who studies inland waters).

Despite the variability in the intensity and frequency of rainfall in Puerto Rico caused by climate change, the accumulated level of inches has not changed significantly. However, the drought has worsened, as in the rest of the region, Quiñones and José Molinelli, geomorphologist and professor at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), agreed.

The water rationing plan for the island’s seven northwestern municipalities has already affected 200,000 people and had cost more than $3.4 million as of April 8, which were invested in 63 oases, security guards for each and overtime hourly payments to PRASA staff.

Puerto Rico has 38 reservoirs and public and private dams, and four additional ones in the planning stages. However, only 11 of the 34 public reservoirs provide the drinking water consumed by the approximately 3.2 million inhabitants in the island. Of the existing reserves, 18 are owned by PREPA, seven by PRASA, four by the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER). Five irrigation dams are managed by PREPA, and four are private, owned by Empresas Serrallés.

According to the DNER, there are four reservoirs in the planning stages. The agency did not want to confirm who these new dams will belong to or when construction will begin.

After two months of requests for information from the agencies with authority over all the reservoirs, it was clear that none of them had full knowledge of all the properties that they are supposed to supervise. PREPA’s inventory is outdated —the book dates from 2012— and the DNER carries a count that does not include most of the reservoirs. PRASA only has the number of reservoirs from which it filters water, but not all of those that have water available for potable use.

Puerto Rico is one of the countries with the largest number of reservoirs per capita in the world, but the low water retention capacity of these reserves is aggravated by sedimentation and lack of maintenance, said Ortiz-Zayas. The limnologist explained that the lack of control in monitoring the sediments and the lack of an adequate cleaning plan have reduced the storage capacity.

“The reservoirs in Puerto Rico are puddles. They are small. They only retain 4% of the water that reaches the island,” Quiñones said.

According to the United States Geological Survey, of the 70 inches of annual rainfall that reach Puerto Rico, only one inch remains stored in the reservoirs, 3.1 go to PRASA and 0.4 refills the aquifers. The rest evaporates or stays in the runoff from rivers that go out to sea.

With climate change, it is expected that there will be periods of more rain every year that could reach the island as stationary storms or hurricanes —as it happened with María in 2017— which would result in more sedimentation, said geomorphologist Molinelli.

“Immediately after María, I recommended that emergency bathymetries be made in La Plata, Loíza and Dos Bocas and I also included Luchetti. The USGS did not have the staff to do it. The [federal agency’s] staff in Puerto Rico has been reduced by the cuts. Ultimately, FEMA is the one who is supposed to give the funds,” Quiñones said.

Juan A. Rosado-Reynés, spokesman for FEMA in Puerto Rico, said on October 31, 2018 that the federal agency approved to reimburse 90% of the costs of the studies of PRASA’s reservoirs.

But it was not until March 27, 2019 —the same day that an interview with PRASA director was requested on this issue— that the agency opened a call for a request for a proposal for these bathymetries.

Because the FEMA funds were approved only for PRASA, the other reservoirs that are managed by other agencies, including Guajataca, still have no measurement prospects.

Image of the Dos Bocas lake dam taken on September 24, 2017 (Photo by FEMA)

Water Waste in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic

If sediment is one of the most serious problems for storing water, the loss caused by broken pipes, obsolete infrastructure and user waste are the biggest obstacles to the distribution of the resource in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

In the Dominican Republic, approximately 50% of the water served by CAASD is lost due to infrastructure problems and user waste.

According to the last PRASA Water Balance report in Puerto Rico, which dates back to 2015, 53.7% of the water produced by the corporation is lost due to broken pipes, commercial losses and unbilled consumption.

The problem is due to the fact that PRASA does not have a detailed inventory of all the obsolete and broken pipelines that the island’s drinking water system has, Elí Díaz, executive director of that agency, confirmed in an interview with the CPI.

“Throwing away drinking water, with the implications of pumping, energy, structure, insurance … is throwing away money. Millions of dollars,” said planner Félix Aponte-Ortiz.

According to the expert, who is a member of PRASA’s Board of Directors, the corporation should make a plan to periodically replace pipes, rather than waiting for them to break.

Given this problem, Díaz said he hopes to implement a digital pipeline monitoring system through a public-private agency by the end of 2019. The effects of this project would begin to be seen within three years due to its technological complexity.

Image of Lake Guajataca taken on September 23, 2017 (Photo by Dennis Rivera | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo)

Combining the Use of Surface and Underground Water Is Key

On the other hand, Aponte-Ortiz said there are options to improve the management of the resource and compensate for the long dry spells caused by climate change.

He said the government of Puerto Rico should consider a more robust combination of the use of its surface water systems (the one that runs through rivers) with the underground system (the one obtained through wells). He criticized that PRASA sees groundwater as a remedy in times of drought instead of as a recurring contribution.

The problem with wells is, as in Haiti, a lack of control and oversight. According to the DNER, there are 1,489 domestic, 1,271 agricultural and 561 commercial wells in Puerto Rico. The secretary of the agency indicated that another 1,000 wells that operate illegally are added to that number.

Doriel Pagán, PRASA’s vice president of operations, said that during this 2019 drought, 10 inactive wells were recovered to compensate in places experiencing rationing, such as Guajataca, and to pour more water into the Carraízo and La Plata reservoirs, which is representative of the potential that this source has to contribute to the system.

“Many of these illegal wells are on private property, [which makes it difficult for us to enter.] To go in, you must go through a court process,” said the official on the difficulties they face to control illegal extraction.

Vázquez, however, warned that the uncontrolled use of water from wells in Puerto Rico puts the island’s natural state of groundwater at risk. Even if the wells are located on the coasts, this could increase the salinization of fresh water supplies, because over-extraction causes the intrusion of salt water from the lower layers of the earth’s crust in those areas.


This report is part of the Se seca el Caribe (The Drying Caribbean) series, the result of the work of a dozen Caribbean journalists led by the Puerto Rico’s Centro de Periodisimo Investigativo. The investigations were possible in part with the support of Para la Naturaleza, Fundación Segarra Boerman e Hijos, and Open Society Foundations.