The Costa Rican Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers (AyA) has to take over control of water service in the community of Santa Ana, Nicoya, after the Constitutional Court ordered it to do so after detecting a series of irregularities by the current administration in charge of the community’s ASADA (rural water board).
The court determined that the abnormalities found “violate basic rights of the community’s inhabitants.”
The court gave the order in the decision made on June 25 of this year to a constitutional appeal filed by the ASADA’s former president, German Zuñiga, who was relieved of his position in February of this year. In the appeal, Zuñiga denounced problems in the water supply, abnormalities in the administrative accounting area, illegal wells, double billing service subscribers and AyA’s negligence for not intervening in the matter.
Santa Ana is a rural community in the northern part of the canton of Nicoya, 5 minutes from Barra Honda National Park and 20 minutes from downtown Nicoya. According to data from the ASADA, the area has around 1,400 inhabitants, at least 50 of whom do not have drinking water service.
Since 2020, the ASADA was prohibited from giving water permits to new constructions since the seven wells didn’t have operating permits from the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) and didn’t have water volume flow assignments.
In the constitutional appeal against AyA, Zuñiga requested that AyA completely dismantle the ASADA and take over the community’s water supply. He also accused AyA of being “negligent” for not taking action in time in light of administrative irregularities that, according to him, date back to long before he joined the organization (March 2019).
AyA official Tomas Martinez denied the accusations and stated before the court that the institution is actively working to solve the problems present in Santa Ana. He likewise pointed fingers at Zúñiga for slowing down several administrative processes because, according to Martinez, he didn’t provide documentation from his former position after his dismissal.
Although the judges didn’t refer to the administrative conflicts between the ASADA and AyA, they did determine that AyA didn’t do enough in the face of “human rights violations” due to the lack of water in the community.
This Court verifies that there has been a violation of the fundamental rights of the residents (…) Even though AyA has known about the drinking water supply problem since July of 2018, the truth is that this problem continues to date, affecting the community,” states the legal ruling.
Irregularities within the ASADA, for example, that it didn’t carry out pertinent studies to verify the volume flow of the wells, according to the Chamber, caused the majority of the population to receive a deficient water service, for only three hours a day, and some homes didn’t even have access at all.
According to the ruling, AyA has up to 12 months to take control of the billing, records and documents of Santa Ana’s water management. In addition, the court ruled that the institute should have taken actions since 2018, when irregularities were reported for the first time. Because of this, AyA has to pay the costs, damages and losses caused to the community by not proceeding more effectively earlier.
The Voice requested an interview with AyA officials, but didn’t receive answers to the questions sent to its press department by the time of this article’s publication.
How Did the Get Started?
German Zuñiga, former president of the ASADA, was dismissed from his post this year in February during a general assembly called by founding members of the ASADA of Santa Ana’s board of directors. This occurred days after he filed a criminal complaint against them for misappropriation of the organization’s funds.
The Voice of Guanacaste has in its possession a copy of the complaint that Zuñiga, along with two other former members of the organization, filed against three members of the ASADA. In this document, they accused the three people of not registering financial and economic operations in accounting books for years, withholding money from subscribers and making “illegal and unjustified expenditures.”
During the assembly, the accused members responded to the complaint, stating that the former president was the one who “stole” funds from the ASADA by buying unnecessary equipment and that he was not “a trustworthy person in their eyes.” In addition to dismissing Zuñiga, they also filed a criminal complaint against him.
In that same session, they formed a new board of directors that, according to the court’s file, has not been recognized by the Ministry of Finance.
In an interview with The Voice of Guanacaste, Zuñiga denied all of the accusations and affirmed that even though he did buy new equipment for the organization’s operation, they were necessary to improve the state of “precariousness” in which he found ASADA.
In addition, he denied that he was enriching himself through the organization, as they also indicated in the complaint. According to him, upon becoming president and finding multiple accounting flaws, he decided to take away the entire board’s allowances until the ASADA was “afloat again.”
Zuñiga became president in 2019. However, a year before then, a dozen residents filed the first complaint with AyA due to irregularities in the ASADA.
Community leader and president of the Water League Emel Rodriguez affirmed that AyA offered the ASADA— at that time led by Zúñiga— electronic billing services and water studies since the water resource administrator didn’t have any. This was despite the fact that both are mandatory, as established by the ASADA Regulations. Although they worked together for three months, Rodriguez explained that “several members of the board” didn’t see the services as necessary and therefore stopped paying him.
Until 2020, Santa Ana wasn’t part of the conglomerate of ASADAs of Nicoya, Santa Cruz and Hojancha, nor did it pay for legal status, according to documents that The Voice has in its possession.
We noticed that part of the board didn’t want us to be there, to the point that they told us that they didn’t see it as necessary to give electronic invoices and they weren’t going to pay the accountant that we had. Those are not unnecessary expenses,” stated Rodriguez.
The Voice tried to communicate with the indicated board members. However, we didn’t receive a response from any of them by the time of this publication. Both criminal complaints are still under investigation, according to the Judicial Power.
Water Outages in the Community
The legal battles between the two boards of directors (the one relieved of duty and the one established by the members of the board of directors) created chaos in billing for the community.
Since February, people have been billed twice for water consumption: one bill in which the old board, according to AyA, charged rates “lower than those established by law” and another with the new board of directors, which is not yet recognized by the Ministry of Finance.
Because it was unclear where to pay the bills, dozens of subscribers continued to pay the old board, which caused the new ASADA board to cut their water service. The Voice contacted the president of the new board of directors, Minor Zuñiga, but the official stated that he would only give statements if it’s in a personal meeting in the community.
The public institution authorized the treasurer of the new board to receive payments for the water service until they take control of the aqueducts.
For his part, the former president claims to have “nothing to do” with the bills issued by the former treasurer. He also emphasized that all of the money he collected during his period as president is in a bank account that he will hand over to AyA along with the accounting records of the transactions.
In March of this year, a dozen members of the community filed another complaint with AyA due to the mismanagement of water in Santa Ana. In the complaint, they expressed disapproval of the water being cut off after they had paid their bill.
Taking all these elements into account, the court determined that AyA should take over the reins of the community’s water system.