Protecting Water in San José, Costa Rica - LANDSCALE

Case Study

Protecting Water in San José, Costa Rica

Building support and attracting investment for the Agua Tica Water Fund by defining common goals, tracking progress, and credibly communicating results

Published October 27, 2021 • Updated December 1, 2021

Costa Rica

The Greater San José Metropolitan Area — a landscape larger than New York City — is home to millions of people, as well as the largest industrial area in Costa Rica. The landscape generates roughly $110 million in annual revenue from the agricultural industry alone. The capital’s residents and industry depend on the Grande and Virilla River catchment as an essential source of water. However, high population growth, poor urban planning, and changing land uses have degraded this water source, transforming the basin into one of the most polluted in Central America, with the highest level of water stress in Costa Rica. Urgent action is needed to stop the deterioration of San Jose’s water sources.

Using LandScale to Support Collaborative Action

In 2019, IUCN partnered with Agua Tica — a private and public water fund in the landscape — to catalyze joint action to protect water resources in the Greater San José Metropolitan Area. IUCN conducted a LandScale assessment to better understand the risks and opportunities in the watershed. A diverse range of stakeholders including trade unions, producer groups, traders, exporters, and existing initiatives were involved in the assessment.  

The holistic assessment looked at the combined impact of various activities in the landscape. Results showed that restoration efforts in the landscape had mostly targeted degraded agroecosystems such as coffee plantations (190 ha/year), with little focus on natural ecosystems (5 ha/year). These insights presented an interesting opportunity to implement a more integrated landscape-level restoration model that includes both agroforestry and natural/assisted regeneration within the livestock, coffee, and water management sectors. 


Joint Action for a More Sustainable Landscape

Associations and municipalities that administer aqueduct and sanitary sewer systems provide drinking water for the greater San José area. Their water sources are located across the entire watershed and are extremely vulnerable to land-use changes and contamination. The assessment showed that 961 hectares or 67% of the total protection zones around water abstraction areas are under intensive land uses (e.g., coffee production and pastures) which can affect water quality and quantity. However, water providers can mobilize funding through water fees to incentivize good agricultural practices, as well as forest conservation and regeneration to complement and initiate conservation and restoration actions in the basin. The action plan developed from the baseline LandScale assessment promotes the establishment of a water tariff for the further protection of water resources in half of all water abstraction areas identified in the assessment. 

The action plan also promotes soil and agroforestry management practices in prioritized coffee plantations to help protect and restore water sources. Implementing agroforestry and soil management practices reduces sediment and nutrients in water recharge areas, thus decreasing water treatment costs downstream. This also encourages the slow release of water during dry seasons, which is critical for water providers to maintain continuous supply at a reasonable cost. Reducing soil erosion also fixes nitrogen in soils, making it available for coffee production and improving coffee yields.   

Furthermore, the plan suggests that the livestock sector adopt waste management and sustainable farming practices to reduce impacts on water quality and quantity. Sustainable farming practices can allow farmers to set aside a portion of their farm area for restoration or conservation, which can provide buffer zones such as riparian forests that help decrease the risk of flooding and drought by releasing water into rivers more slowly compared to deforested areas. These forest patches also play a particularly important role in filtering pollutants that wash into the water from agricultural land through the surface and groundwater. The adoption of both sustainable farming practices and when necessary, waste management technologies, can reduce the contamination of water with fecal coliform and in turn, reduce water treatment costs downstream. 

Protection and restoration of ecosystems in water recharge and protection zones can help mitigate the downward trend of water flow rates in the landscape. Achieving integrated watershed management at scale requires implementing formally adopted and enforceable land-use plans and increasing the adoption of good agricultural practices and restoration through sectoral initiatives.


Tracking Progress and Impact

Consumers worldwide are increasingly demanding proof that the products they buy are good for people and the planet. Using LandScale, landscape stakeholders can credibly report their contributions to improving the sustainability of the landscape surrounding San José and communicate confidently on their progress in global sustainability programs. 

The baseline LandScale assessment helped IUCN and partners build a vision for integrated watershed management, orienting restoration and conservation efforts to priority areas at the landscape level. Information collected through the first assessment identified opportunities for cross-sector collaboration and helped partners set credible targets for 2025 that are crucial to reaching the sustainability objectives of the landscape. 

The initial landscape report provides a baseline measure of key sustainability indicators related to critical issues in the landscape. Over time, LandScale can be used to evaluate progress and impact through indicators such as ecosystem restoration, water quantity, and conservation of biodiversity. The next assessment is scheduled for 2023 to support stakeholders such as coffee buyers, the ministry of agriculture, and local governments in planning activities, reporting impacts, and measuring progress against targets.