HAVANA TIMES – When the spring rains began in May 2023, Richel Almeida thought that he could free himself of the everyday task of going to get drinking water at one of the wells in the Boves neighborhood in Camaguey.
Hundreds of people go to the Camaguey neighborhood famous for its natural springs, especially in the afternoons. Heredia Street is where you find the majority of family businesses dedicated to selling water, which became vital in the early months of 2022 because the city’s aqueduct collapsed.
The official explanation was that lack of rainfall prevented dams from being replenished and forced a reduction in water being pumped to the local water-treatment plant. The network was working with less than a third of the 1300 liters per second it had been working with in recent years.
Large areas of the city spent months without receiving running water. Back then, lines in front of homes with a well in neighborhoods like Boves, became commonplace again. In addition to the people who were already going regularly to get better quality water for children, the elderly and sick, there were also people who – like Richel – were being forced to go because their water supply had been completely cut off.
Rains in May and June 2023 – which led to the greatest floods in the city since 2008 – provided temporary relief. Dams filled up again and the majority of neighborhoods were receiving water in cycles of up to 15 days. However, not even the most privileged (with a shorter cycle) have managed to free themselves of another historic problem in the city: how dirty the pumped water is, which is usually yellow and tastes bad.
“Drinking the water is dangerous, no matter how much you filter and boil it,” Richel believes, who lives with his wife and in-laws, and spends approximately 1000 pesos every month to buy water for drinking and cooking.
40 million dollars later
In June 2023, the president of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INRH), Antonio Rodriguez Rodriguez, visited the water-treatment plant in Camaguey. During the visit, “he took an interest in the quality of the water that was being served to the city and declared to carry out tests throughout the day to know the standard of water reaching the population in detail, even from water sources.” The article of this tour, published by Adelante newspaper, is one of the few official acknowledgements of the situation. Camaguey locals have been complaining about the poor quality of water for months.
The aqueduct in Camaguey receives its supply from 12 dams capable of holding up to 340 million m3 of water, which the Agramonte capital shares with Nuevitas and Florida, the other two most important cities in the province.
Especially after the first phase of funding – with an easy repayment scheme – of 40 million dollars came through, which the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) granted in 2014. The objective was to provide “safe and clean access to water […as] part of a comprehensive program for Camaguey city.”
This was what the head of the SFD delegation in Cuba, Saud Alshammari, explained when participating in the reopening of the water-treatment plant in Agramonte, in December 2021. Thanks to this fund, two filter modules were repaired and a third one was activated that had never worked, increasing the plant’s capacity up to 1800 liters per second. Furthermore, “repairs and the construction of 72 km of new conductors and 45 km of network, as well as the recovery of pumping stations began,” Luis Palacios Hidalgo, the project manager in Camaguey, explained in February.
The plan proposed by INRH considers supplying the capital city and Nuevitas with water from the largest dams alone, and to direct water from the smaller dams to Florida and as a reserve for times of drought.
A second investment phase would allow the municipality of Florida to be disconnected from the network (to connect it to an area with industrial wells); repair the water-treatment plant in Nuevitas (to return its original planned capacity of 600 liters per second); and to build a new conductor between the Maximo and Cubano-Bulgara dams.
But INRH postponed large investments in favor of repairing urban networks and installing water meters.
Water meters would increase INRH revenue because they’d be selling water by volume, instead of payment for the service, which is virtually symbolic. The decision was probably also influenced, in addition to financial convenience, by the fact that the majority of specialist brigades in this kind of construction in the province had installed a 89 km-long conductor to supply water to the tourist destination of Cayo Cruz. Even though the civil phase of the tourism project ended in 2020, work went on well into the following year.
The conditions for a “perfect storm” had already been planted in the beginning of 2022. A year of scarce rainfall joined the electricity crisis and the lack of alternative source that could supply exhausted dams on the “frontline”. A lot of precious time had been lost by the time authorities accepted this, and they began the Maximo dam connection and installing a pumping station there. It wasn’t until June 2023 that water from this dam reached Camaguey, after months of dramatic shortages and almost at the same time that rainfall replenished the other dams.
The weather is to blame
The Camaguey project isn’t the only hydraulic project fueled by Saudi funding. In 2013, the SFD granted a credit of 30 million dollars to repair water networks in Havana, and another 29.1 million dollars in 2016 for similar work to the aqueduct, sewage system and drains in Cardenas, Matanzas.
Even though the loans weren’t enough for a complete renovation of the water systems in these three systems, they were a significant contribution. The ideal scenario would have been for them to be complemented with investments from the Cuban Government, especially in areas such as the infrastructure of supply sources.
Reports by Cuba’s Office of Statistics and Information don’t explain the sum of investments corresponding to hydraulic infrastructure. The funds assigned for this were filed under the generic “Electricity, gas and water supply,” and 13.9% of State budget resources for public investment were assigned between the three-year period 2013-2015. This percentage dropped to 11.3% in the next three-year period, and to just under 9% during the “temporary/pandemic” period. In 2022, this percentage improved ever so slightly, going up to 9.8%. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the urgency of repairs to the electricity system that year – including the destruction caused by Hurricane Ian -, it’s unlikely that the budget allocation to aqueducts and other hydraulic projects would be significant.
The recent water supply crisis in the capital proves this.
In the beginning, authorities said that faults in the pumping system were the result of a highly active season of electrical storms. However, a few days later, the general director of Aguas de La Habana company, Leonel Diaz Hernandez, admitted that “there has always been approximately the same [damage by storms] in previous years.” The difference was that before “water supply systems were a bit more robust, more efficient, with more machinery, and that allowed for a faster response when it came to repairs.”
A week later, the assistant manager of the same company, Rosaura Socarras Ordaz, translated the problem into numbers. Interviewed by Granma, the official “explained that every year, the company repaired 10% of working equipment, but that ever since 2019, this investment didn’t happen because of the complex economic situation on the island.”
On June 26th, dozens of neighbors in the Guatemala community, in Holguin’s Mayari municipality, took to the streets to demand water, after three months of not receiving it via the aqueduct.
The official justification for the crisis was that the engine used to keep the town’s small network going had broken down, and they had tried to replace it with a less powerful turbine and with tanker trucks. Only after the protest did the authorities send enough water tanker trucks to supply the population and sped up repairs of the broken down machinery, saying that it would be returned to the province the following week for reinstalment.
Around the same time, different embassies located in Havana’s Miramar neighborhood decided to file a complaint with the Ministry of Foreign Relations because of the poor aqueduct service and the alternative, water supply with tanker trucks. This is what Mario Hernandez, a reader of Tribuna de La Habana, said, who also said he was employee in the building that deals with the diplomatic sector. According to him, the origin of this complaint lied in the reduced volume of pumped water and service timetables, “when tanks aren’t being filled even half-way [… and] there aren’t any tankers to keep all of these buildings with their water supply.”
The Tribuna… article was published on June 26th, the same day that Havana had almost 10% of its inhabitants without water services. Social media is full of references about this situation, which was resolved over the weeks, thanks – mostly – to hasty imports of motor pumps and spare parts.
It was a complex time, but not any more than what residents in the country’s interior are currently experiencing, especially in the eastern Oriente region.
The situation in Granma was tense in eight of its 13 municipalities. Floods in June 2023 damaged pumping stations, caused leaks and made canals collapse, affecting 120,000 inhabitants.
In March, Guantanamo reported approximately 107,000 people affected by water shortages, 21.3% of the province’s population. INRH only had 12 tanker trucks (out of the 38 on the inventory) to supply them, plus three donated by China and “eight or nine from State companies, which is all made worse by never-ending fuel shortages,” the state-led newspaper Venceremos confirmed.
Water supply shortages are also affecting the Maisi municipality (with the worst situation caused by the drought). During a government meeting in far eastern region, the population complained about studies that have been ongoing for years that haven’t managed to specify solutions for water supply.
There are a total of 600,000 Cubans who are receiving water by tanker trucks; a service that can be “bought” in some places on the sly, costing up to 5,000 pesos, more than the average monthly wage.
Between limited international partnership, the Cuban State’s scarce resources and the inability of most of the Cuban population to spend hundreds or even thousands of pesos on buying drinking water, there is little room for manuever… just like the working hours of aqueducts in most of the country.