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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Experts panel recommends water efficiency actions

The Committee of Experts and Advisors on Climate Change recommended a series of actions to conserve water and counteract the myriad challenges that are putting pressure on Puerto Rico’s aquifers, reservoirs and other water infrastructure.

By John McPhaul

The Committee of Experts and Advisors on Climate Change (CEACC by its Spanish initials) presented on Wednesday 57 actions to conserve, protect and use water more efficiently in the face of the various impacts that climate change could have on the availability of the resource on the island.

“Water is a vital resource for all forms of life. It is a mobile resource, limited (spatially and temporally) and of multiple uses (agriculture, tourism, industry, recreation, vital needs and personal hygiene, among others),” the agency said in a joint statement presented Tuesday on the occasion of World Water Day (March 22). “It is considered a renewable resource in quality and quantity. However, poor management and climate change can reduce the amount of water available in certain regions.”

The CEACC noted a series of challenges that put pressure on aquifers, reservoirs and other infrastructure associated with water. Given these risks, they recommended actions to control water loss, conserve it, capture and take advantage of rainwater, reuse treated wastewater, protect aquifers and manage droughts and water resources. They also proposed measures to control sedimentation and flooding, educate and facilitate citizen participation. Another course of action is to review the current legal framework related to water resources to identify if it contains the metrics included in Law 33 of 2019, the Puerto Rico Climate Change Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience Law.

The CEACC cited data from the United Nations Office for Education, Science and Culture that indicates that Puerto Rico ranks 135th out of 182 jurisdictions studied worldwide with respect to the availability of fresh water per person. Also, according to the World Bank, Puerto Rico is the jurisdiction in Latin America with the second lowest availability of fresh water per person, the group said.

“In addition, it is public knowledge that the storage capacity of most reservoirs is seriously compromised by sedimentation,” the experts pointed out. “The destruction of 144 million trees by Hurricane Maria (quantified by the International Institute of Tropical Forestry) worsened the situation.”

Among the challenges that affect the availability of water, the CEACC mentioned the loss of up to 60 percent of the resource both in the distribution system of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) and in the PRASA irrigation canals that supply the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).

“The situation of the aquifers is precarious,” the group warned.

The experts pointed out as an example that the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) formally declared that the island’s southern aquifer is in a “critical state.” This means that the aquifer can be lost if drastic protection measures are not taken. Therefore, the DNER prohibited the construction of new wells and prohibited increasing the amount of water that is extracted from each existing well. However, the measures were insufficient in Salinas, where the DNER established a construction ban.

Another manifestation of climate change recorded in Puerto Rico is the rise in sea level, which causes the intrusion of seawater into aquifers and reduces the availability of groundwater. It also makes the situation in the southern aquifer more critical if adaptation measures are not taken, the CEACC warned. The entry of seawater also threatens the water treatment plants that are supplied from the river segments near the coast.

Likewise, the increase in temperature — which has registered record levels in the last decade — increases evapotranspiration; this is the loss of water in the subsoil and the amount of water on the earth’s surface that is transferred back to the atmosphere, including surface water bodies such as reservoirs. The CEACC added that heat makes people drink more water to stay hydrated; increases the demand for water for the cooling systems of hospitals, shopping malls, office buildings and hotels; and it could increase the consumption of water in PREPA’s generating plants to meet the increase in the demand for electricity due to the use of fans and air conditioners.

Meanwhile, the experts pointed to projections from various scientific organizations that anticipate a reduction in average rainfall in the region. Among them, the most recent report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that rainfall could decrease by up to 20 percent in the Caribbean region.

“If these projections materialize, the availability of water on the island will be further reduced,” they indicated. “A reduction in rainfall could be reflected in more frequent and longer droughts”

Also anticipated are torrential rains that adversely affect the lives of many people and cause economic losses.

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