OAS National Focal Point: Information Inventory
The Office for Sustainable Development and Environment (DSD) of the OAS created this database of Water Law and regulations in Latin America and the Caribbean to improve public access to the water law of these countries and provide the reader with recent information on this topic. The summary is also designed to serve as a research tool for any person or organization interested in the water legislation of these countries.
For each country there is a list of legal instruments -- statutes, regulations, laws, norms, etc. These lists enable viewers to get a sense of the entire body of water law of a country. Each list also includes, where available, links to other relevant information sources on the Internet.
A number of points should be made about the scope of the summary. First, the summary includes "water law" defined broadly as law that does or might affect water resources.
Second, Phase I of the summary focuses on federal law in the Latin American and Caribbean countries, with less emphasis on the laws of provinces, states, municipalities, etc. Sub-national law will be detailed further during Phase II of the summary which will be undertaken at a later date.
Third, this summary is indeed a "summary," not a complete description. The summary is intended to provide the user with a brief overview of the law in a given area to allow the user to pursue more details as necessary.
Finally, due to the pace of change in institutional structure in many countries, some information as to the status of particular countries/sectors is no doubt already out of date.
Most legal systems in Latin America and Caribbean countries provide for some sort of legislation on water. However, these laws often do not provide for a proper enforcement authority or, when they do, such authorities are not endowed with either the necessary funding or technical capacity to face their duties. In some instances, water laws may be confusing, highly technical, or may not provide for meaningful public participation mechanisms, if these are contemplated at all. In other instances, only general framework legislation on environmental resources is available and a specific law on water resources is missing.
Although, given technical issues involved in water management, it is understandable that comprehension of these laws may be a rather complex task, particularly for a lay person, the fact remains that water is a vital resource for human life and decisions relating to its uses and applications should be made bearing in mind the participation of civil society in general, which may also be channeled through Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Furthermore, given the specific characteristics of water resources, it does not seem enough to regulate this natural resource by means of framework legislation on environmental resources which legislates on other resources as well, rather than enacting a specific law on water resources.
Issues dealing with Enforcement
Water laws are usually enforced by an administrative body within the government, be it federal, provincial or municipal. Jurisdictional issues often arise particularly in the case of federal government schemes such as is the case of most Latin American and even some Caribbean nations, which makes it difficult to determine which body is responsible for water enforcement. Furthermore, where such situations do not arise, the lack of proper funding, equipment or training does not facilitate the task of enforcing such laws.
Issues dealing with Regulation
When a congress law establishes the duty of the government to promote public participation in water management issues, two situations may arise: In some cases, the law becomes operative upon enactment and any citizen may have the right to demand government compliance. Therefore, the public is immediately enabled to avail itself of the provisions establishing the right to participate.
However, in a majority of cases, the congress delegates the faculty to regulate such duty in an administrative body. It is therefore the duty of such body (e.g.: the Water Management Authority) to determine the mechanisms by which the rights and duties enunciated by the law become operative. But if the administrative body does not enact such regulation, a long period of time may elapse between the moment the law is enacted and the moment these rights and duties become operative. Unless the law itself provides for some limit (e.g.: 90 days from enactment) or other measure of time (e.g.: a reasonable period of time) for the establishment of a due process in which the public may avail itself of the provisions enacted by the law, it may be years before it becomes operative.
Water Resource Management Situation in Latin America and the Caribbean
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, Latin America and the Caribbean possess 30% of the world’s water resources but that distribution of safe water is “highly irregular or inequitable” due to economic inequalities, regional scarcity, and water pollution. While the water issues in the region are often diverse and varied, a few cut across almost all state and sub-regional borders, such as the disparity in water access between rural and urban communities and the increasing impacts that untreated wastewater, salinization and other pollution problems are having on water quality and public health. At the same time, however, the percentage of the population with access to safe water has been steadily rising over the past decade and with continued and increased efforts this trend may continue.
The United Nation’s regional overview of water resource management in the LAC region offered several recommendations for action that correspond with the objectives behind the creation of this database. Specifically, the report stressed the importance of “increased horizontal cooperation” within the region and of changing institutional and legal frameworks in order to promote better administration of water. Going further, the authors claimed that, “The legal frameworks must be revised, and in some cases reformed, changing the sectoral focus to more integrated management, bearing in mind the multiple uses of the resource by all the different sectors: agriculture, industry, energy, domestic consumption, recreational use, fishing and aquaculture.”
For a regional overview of the water resource management situation in the Americas, see this report from la Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Medio Ambiente:
In order to reduce the number of statistical sources used in order to have a more accurate cross-country comparison, all statistics on access to potable water and sanitation come from this 2000 WHO regional report on the water management situation in the Western Hemisphere and may have changed since that time:
Other Useful Links
- A database maintained by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that details national legislation and international agreements concerning food and agriculture (including fisheries, forestry, and water).
- A website of the United Nations Environment Program that includes national reports on integrating watershed and coastal area management for the 13 Caribbean member states of the OAS.