Formulation of Strategic Action Plan for the Integrated Management of Water Resources and the Sustainable Development of the San Juan River Basin and its Coastal Zone


San Juan Basin
The San Juan River Basin (SJRB) project covers some 38,500 km² in the basin itself, plus its associated coastal zone in the Caribbean Sea. Of the land area, 64% is in southern Nicaragua and 36% in northern Costa Rica. The planning area covers the subbasins of Lake Nicaragua and of the San Juan River, as well as four smaller, but nonetheless significant, subbasins with natural links to this system--the Indio and Maiz river basins in Nicaragua, and the Colorado and Tortuguero river basins in Costa Rica.

The waters of the Lake Nicaragua-San Juan River watershed flow through at least eight distinct terrestrial ecosystems: (i) dry tropical forest to the east, north, and west of Lake Nicaragua; (ii) cloud forest in the high areas of the Central Volcanic Cordillera of Costa Rica; (iii) moist tropical forest to the south and southwest of Lake Nicaragua and the eastern foothills; (iv) very moist tropical forest in the San Juan Valley and coastal plains; (v) gallery forest along river banks; (vi) wetlands to the south of Lake Nicaragua and at the confluences of the Colorado and Tortuguero rivers with the San Juan; (vii) second-growth forest, meadows, and agricultural land in extensive areas of the basin; and (viii) coastal forest and mangrove swamps on the Caribbean coast. The Indio and Maiz river basins are mostly covered by moist to very moist tropical forest.

Due to this range of ecosystems and associated habitats, the SJRB has a wealth of biodiversity. Its location in the natural biological corridor running the length of Central America has made it a meeting ground for species all the way from the subarctic areas of North America to others from the subtropics of South America. To a great extent, its natural history is unique. The low population density in many parts of the SJRB has kept it relatively pristine, although there is little information on the potential future impact of human migration trends and the spread of agriculture in the basin. 

Although not included in the project area, Lake Managua has been temporarily connected with the SJRB at times and thus will be taken into consideration during the formulation of the Strategic Action Plan (SAP) for the basin. For example, the torrential rainfall associated with Hurricane Mitch in October 1998 caused Lake Managua to overflow its banks, flooding the surrounding areas and sending water into Lake Nicaragua. To prevent such flooding in the future, the Nicaragua government now intends to regulate the waters of Lake Managua, which will make transfers to Lake Nicaragua more frequent. Various studies, in particular those undertaken by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ), have shown that Lake Managua is extremely polluted. Thus Lake Nicaragua faces the threat of an influx of heavy metals, agrochemical waste associated with pesticides and fertilizers, and industrial and urban effluents, all of which would diminish the quality of its waters. With this in mind, the SJRB project will work in close coordination with initiatives or plans to regulate the level of Lake Managua. Close co-operation with the UNEP (United Nations Environment Program/GEF (Global Environment Facility) project "Reducing Pesticide Runoff to the Caribbean" executed by the office of the Regional Seas Programme for the Caribbean (CAR-RCU) is anticipated.


San Juan River
Currently, both Nicaragua and Costa Rica lack adequate technical and institutional capacity to collect comprehensive data on the SJRB and to implement effective policies for watershed planning and integrated management that are needed to protect and rehabilitate water resources and ecosystems. Paucity of resources, poor transportation infrastructure, the lack of recognition of women in Natural Resource Management, and weak local institutions are common on both sides of the border. Given this situation, the governments of Costa Rica and Nicaragua have proposed a joint approach to best manage this complex hydrologic system, within the constraints imposed by demography and geography.

Regional studies now being carried out by the Central American Committee on Water Resources, with international cooperation, lead to the conclusion that the fresh water in the San Juan Basin is the only source capable of meeting the foreseeable development needs of the semiarid Pacific slope of Central America, the region’s most populated area. Thus, there is a likelihood that this system will come under increasing pressure of human exploitation. In addition, because the SJRB is also a common westward passageway for anticyclones from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the threat of hurricanes and tropical storms, coupled with the threats posed by volcanic activity and seismic pressures that already make this fresh water supply especially vulnerable, further exacerbates the human pressures likely to be experienced within this hydrologic system.

The GEF Operational Strategy lists four major areas of concern relating to international waters: (i) degradation of the quality of water resources; (ii) physical habitat degradation of coastal and near-shore marine areas, lakes, and watercourses; (iii) the introduction of exotic species that disrupt aquatic and land ecosystems and (iv) excessive and/or inappropriate exploitation of resources due to inadequate management and control measures. All of these problems were identified in the SJRB during the Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis (TDA), which was carried out with PDF Block B funds. The analysis was implemented with the active participation of key stakeholders, and based upon an earlier study, carried out jointly by UNEP and the OAS, which pointed to a number of current and emerging problems that threaten the sustainability of development in the San Juan River Basin and ultimately the quality of life of the people who live there. These transboundary environmental problems often have common roots and manifest themselves both individually and collectively. They are closely interrelated, but in the interest of seeking solutions they have been broken down as follows: 

  • Accelerating degradation of transboundary ecosystems
  • Overexploitation of valuable natural resources
  • Soil degradation and increasing sedimentation
  • Pollution of water bodies
  • High vulnerability to natural hazards
  • Root causes (Matrix)

Project Goals

The purpose of this request is to procure financing for the formulation of a Strategic Action Program (SAP) for the integrated management of water resources and the sustainable development of the San Juan River Basin and its Coastal Zone. The ultimate objective of the SAP is to ensure the availability of goods and services provided by water resources for conserving natural ecosystems and social and economic development, in order to satisfy present and future demands as agreed by all parties involved. In this way conflicts related to the use of the goods and services generated by SJRB ecosystems will be minimized through a coordinated program of action conducted jointly by the two countries.

The major components of the SAP formulation include: (i) the strengthening of a basin-wide information system that provides the mechanisms for the gathering and dissemination of data adequate to the needs of decision-making for the integrated management of the basin; (ii) the creation of a well-coordinated bilateral planning process for the SJRB; (iii) the implementation of a gender oriented public participation process; (iv) the strengthening of public institutions and private organizations; and (v) the formulation and implementation of environmental education activities.

Coordination between the two countries is an important mechanism that can help to improve the quality of life of the inhabitants and protect the ecosystem. This cooperation will support the coordination of research and transboundary management. It will permit the interaction of government institutions and NGOs, strengthening both and making possible a more integrated – and thus more sustainable – development.

The SAP will firstly create a framework for future action and a timetable of activities for the protection and use of the numerous goods and services offered by the water resources and ecosystems of the SJRB. It will thus promote the sustainable development of the region. Secondarily the SAP will lay out a series of measures to reduce and/or eliminate current and emerging problems affecting the conservation and development of the SJRB. It will enhance the transboundary and global benefits obtained when development is both integrated and participatory, and when environmental education, technology transfer, and institutional strengthening are key elements of a program. Furthermore the SAP will address priority transboundary needs and focus on long-term solutions to the current and emerging problems facing the SJRB. Lastly it will propose a series of projects based on experience gathered from demonstrations of new technologies, taking into account their real costs and the capacity of the institutions and organizations involved to execute them.

    Location of the Project

    San Juan Project - Map Location  


  • Funding source: Global Environment Facility - GEF
  • GEF Implementing Agency: United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP)
  • Executing Agency: Organization of American States
  • National Executing Agency: Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (Costa Rica) and Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (Nicaragua)