Cuba’s Prolonged Water Shortage

By Rachel D. Rojas  (Progreso Semanal)

HAVANA TIMES — Six in the afternoon in a block of flats. The background noise, which is always so diverse, becomes more recognizable and homogeneous when the water pump (hydraulic pumps or electric pumps) is activated. While somebody tunes in to the special concert, the classical one or the popular guaracha show on summer Cuban TV, another performance, which is free and without a lot of media coverage, begins when neighbors collect their water.

When a few weeks ago, the water supply to the population in the capital was affected (more than normal) because of breakages in some pipes, collective efforts became more intense in buildings and communities. It wasn’t the normal cackling: “They’ve put the water on,” “turn on the motor”, “fill these buckets, my son”, “throw the hose over”…; now you can hear hundreds of voices as if they were in a giant and collective chorus, shouting out their built up need, and now magnified. We know that you can’t live without water.

On TV news programs that talk about the subject, the official said that work on the broken pipes was being planned in the National Water Institute’s action plan. Then, he said that these pipes had been used for 60 years. I think that it was a colleague of mine who then said, jokingly, that the problem was that maintenance work on these pipes had been set to coincide with the hundred year anniversary of their use.

The intense drought that the island and its people are suffering isn’t news. But, maybe the real dimensions of the problem haven’t been publicly explained to raise people’s awareness about the gravity of the situation. The poorest, the most deprived, already know this.

Those who watch their animals die or get sick in the countryside, those who see that their crops don’t grow or produce less than 50% of what they should be, know this. People who have been paying drivers of water tanks “on the sly” so that their private cisterns could be filled, too. And water barrel boys, in the most complex areas of the country, who travel long distances with their mules and containers who fill them up in some well to then sell them onto others who couldn’t go themselves. And those who, at least in Havana, buy 5 liters of filtered water for 15 Cuban pesos. And those who, in the middle of Central Havana, with their daily buildings collapsing, know that after filling their tanks, a part of this water begins to escape through these hundred-year old pipes and to leak through roofs and walls, and they collect every drop they can in jugs and bowls. All of these people really know how serious this situation is.

Those who don’t seem to know or suffer from it are those who waste water. The tourist who stops to take photos of neighbors filling buckets of water after their day’s work, they don’t have a shortage in their water supply at their hotel, even though the pipe leak has affected almost all of Havana’s population. People who are staying in an apartment or rented room via  Airbnb, neither. These people don’t know. Nor do the people who leave their taps open for minutes at a time while they wash up a few dishes, or those who can shower as much as they want to, all of the time which is what this abominable heat asks for, nor do the people who are polluting our rivers, or those who allow their companies to dump waste in them and end up polluting our groundwater layer. These people don’t know either, so it seems.

However, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONEI), whose latest available figures are from 2015, the truth of the matter is that the situation has been getting worse over the years.

The ONEI also publishes data about the Cuban population with and without drinking water, but only between 2009 and 2014. The number of people who can’t access water increased in the those last three years from 5.5% to 7.7% in 2011 and then declined until it was 4.8%. This means that in 2014, there were 539,472 people without access to drinking water in Cuba. And if the situation has only gotten worse, like media reports about this issue have revealed, this number should be much higher in 2017.

Neighbors in one of the blocks of flats in Central Havana, who are all so collaborative when the water comes in, don’t know a lot about these figures. They don’t need so many details either, because they are the details in their own situation. Many of the possible solutions to this problem surpass the possible action for these neighbors. It’s the government, from the local to national level that needs to take charge of this situation.

In the meantime, the possibility of protecting and saving water does lies in our hands, in such a way that, even on a small scale, the little water we have can be better distributed. Drought in Cuba affects all of us, in some way or another. But, as with everything else in this world, there are always some people who are affected more, a lot more than others, and these people are almost always the majority.