Shitty Inequality: Faecal sludge in Costa Rica´s paradise

The history of an undeveloped sanitation system

Costa Rica, a nature paradise with 2% of the world’s biodiversity, is a place where 70% of wastewater and faecal sludge goes to the rivers. With its 5 million inhabitants, it has the most contaminated river in Central America, Río Tárcoles, which receives the contaminated water of the Great Metropolitan Area (GMA) and which constitute about 50% of the country’s total population.

Pre-colonization water supply sources were the springs and the rivers.  In the beginning of the 17th until 18th century the use of ditches became the form of water supply, also pumping stations were built to channel the water to the capital. The boost of agricultural activities and population growth brought an exponential demand for water and with the resulting poor sanitation practices (including open defecation). Public health concerns led to the development of sanitation facilities such as pit latrines, septic tanks and later on the sewage system during the first decades of the 20th century. Currently theses sewers discharged wastewater directly into the rivers.

Inadequate maintenance and investments into sanitation has led to the dilapidation of the existing facilities over the years. Although the country have more onsite sanitation facilities, government tends to put in more investment in centralised sewerage without considering the need to also invest in faecal sludge management. Different aspects of Governance that influence the realities of FSM in Costa Rica are presented below. [1]

The issues of a delayed and unenforced framework

Costa Rica has progressively developed laws, policies and regulations to tackle WASH challenges including faecal sludge management (FSM) starting from the Water Law No 276 of 1942 to the most recent, the National policy for sanitation in 2017.

Even though, there is a regulatory framework for Faecal Sludge Management there is a lack of reinforcement, for example, there is illegal dumping of faecal sludge in the environment and according to Madrigal, 2015, only 7 out of 40 desludging companies were registered. This view was expressed by a desludging truck operator thus;

“There is no benefit of being authorised by the Ministry of Health, they don’t monitor us, and our clients don’t really care, they just want us to take the sludge out and they don’t even ask where do we take it”. 

Another compounding issue in regulation is the overlapping roles of the different operators and regulators in the sector, for example the Municipalities, the Costa Rican Institute of Water and Sewerage Systems (AyA) and other utilities are all service providers and regulators of water and sewer systems. Also, Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) and the Ministry of Health (MINSA) both regulate and approve water and wastewater treatment. Lastly, the Regulatory Authority of Public Services (ARESEP) and the General Comptroller of the Republic are both tariff regulator for the water supply and sewerage services.

Great access, poor management and distribution  

Although the access to water and sanitation is almost 100%, the management and distribution of sanitation is very irregular. 70-80% of the population uses on-site sanitation (Septic Tank (ST) and latrines) systems and 20-30% have access to sewerage systems. There are some wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) in the GMA, one of which is newly built and will serve 45% of the population in GMA. However, it would not improve faecal sludge management significantly because greater population of the city as shown in fig. 1 below uses onsite facilities that require faecal sludge treatment plants (FSTP) to treat the faecal sludge before disposal.

Sanitation access before and after the GMA’s new WWTP. Source:  (Madrigal, 2015)

Unequal distributions of water and sanitation

Informal settlements  are an example of water and sanitation inequalities in Costa Rican society, water supply is intermittent and even if access to toilets is generally good, there is an inefficient management of on-site sanitation, especially the treatment and disposal of the wastewater (WW) effluents and faecal sludge (FS) from septic tanks.

In most of the slums wastewater is going to sewers that transport it directly into rivers and where effluents of septic tanks are dumped into the ground or open drains. When septic tanks are not emptied, faecal sludge tends to overflow, or when collected, is prone to be dumped into the environment. Additionally, due to high water tables, groundwater is also at risk of contamination. [2]


There are complex dynamics influencing the inefficiency of sanitation in informal settlements, which were first founded by rural citizens and immigrants due to war and social conflicts and that have grown from 11 slums in 1970, to 138 in 1980, and 418 in 2011.[3]

Costa Rica’s GINI index in 2017 was 48.7[4] showing an unequal society.   Economic issues, legal tenancy, high density and insecurity are other causes that contribute to the problem. According to national statistics, dwellers have low educational level, only few family members are employed and more than half of the households are female-headed with average income of 150-200 US dollars per month.

Some dwellers cannot afford adequate on site technologies and even if they do, they do not know when to clean them and cannot meet the expenses of regular maintenance. Furthermore, without legal tenure, allocation of wastewater treatment services has become impossible because without legal documents residents are not allow to construct the connections to the new sewer lines, even if they are close to the settlements and families are able to receive economic support from the government to connect to the sewerage system.

“I am not proud to say this but we dump everything to the river, even our garbage, because there is no other solution, we don’t have space to build a ST and we don’t receive public services”. -Informal Settlement Resident. 2015

In addition, difficult access and insecurity translates into limited or more expensive provision of collection and transport of FS because companies charge more when households are located in insecure areas.

Moreover, there are several socio nature aspects that worsen the situation. Informal settlements are regularly surrounded by polluted  rivers but also, they are prone to flood and to mudslides, increasing the risk of exposure to pollution but also, to natural disasters. Lastly, informal settlements have regularly, the highest rates of dengue and chikungunya cases and due to the lack of wastewater and faecal sludge treatment, rivers get even more polluted affecting fauna downstream. [5]


Effects of voice and authority

The inefficiency  of sanitation services are caused by lack of reinforcement, control of laws, allocation of budget towards FSM, bureaucratic systems, duplication of functions and gaps between the regulation and the reality.  This inefficiency also creates disadvantages for the poor in increasing inequities and access to sufficient services.

There have been cases where marginalization is translated into contestation disputes, leaders from informal settlements have actively participated in demands and asking for agreements for the provision of sanitation  services, and also requested information about the new WWTP (since they did not have a clear understanding of the repercussions to the community) but these conditions were not completely accepted by the AyA. [6]

Technical gaps

The GMA project exhibits what may be an important lack of awareness when it has planned an investment in WWTP that would only improve the only 3% FS related problems, instead of directing such resources into the FSTP considering that 70% of the population uses ST. Although the feel of urbanisation which entails centralised sewers are adopted, it is important to note here that only the higher and middle class would benefit from the project while the low-income earners in the informal settlement are not considered beneficiaries of the project.

Experts have been pointing out this incoherencies, nonetheless, nor the government or the experts have enough knowledge and practice on FSM, there is also not enough investment in research.

The distribution of knowledge and expertise also played out when only 3% of interviewed dwellers could explain some sanitation processes and preferred “flush and forget practice” and the disposal of wastewater into the surrounding rivers as a “free practice”. Social understanding and the fact that there is abundance of water in the country, makes people believe there is no need to manage resources adequately and they neglect sanitation. In addition, for the dwellers that had STs, there is a gap in knowledge on the correct selection, design, maintenance of on-site technologies.[6]

“Even if the government would be able to pay this debt today, we could not catch up because there is not enough technical capacity, machinery, let alone specialists in the area of sanitary engineering”. Government representative point of view regarding the sanitation gap. (Madrigal, 2015).


The governmental decisions related to sanitation have not being addressed inclusively and coherently with the ecological fame and social realities of the country. Furthermore, the gap in FSM knowledge creates unequal and unsustainable solutions, which detriment the vulnerability of the poor in the informal settlements. For this reason, it is of great importance to focus on FSM without forgetting the population that is under marginalised conditions.


Amie Jammeh, Arina Priyanka V., Edidiong Obot, Joel Kabika, Sofía Murillo, are students of MSc. Sanitation program in IHE Institute of Water Education.

[1] More info:

[2]More info on Faecal sludge truck illegal disposal:

[3] D. Madrigal, 2015, Situational Analysis: Faecal Sludge Management in Costa Rican Informal Settlements. Thesis Master Project. University of Queensland, Australia.

[4] GINI index:

[5] More info:

[6] D. Madrigal, 2015, Situational Analysis: Faecal Sludge Management in Costa Rican Informal Settlements. Thesis Master Project. University of Queensland, Australia.


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