The Odyssey of Water

Yusimi Rodriguez

Juana in the gallery where she works.

HAVANA TIMES, June 20 — I admit that when I heard Juana Maria complaining about water problems at her house, I didn’t find her story anything out of the ordinary.  I said to her that many Cubans frequently lack water, including me.  But she responded with a tired smile saying, “That’s true, but I’ve gone eleven years without receiving water normally.”

The problem is not only hers, but her whole block.  What’s curious is that the residents who live on the block behind her house and on the one in front of hers have no problems with water.  Juana Maria’s block, however, is as dry as a bone.

Juana:  I’ve lived here for fourteen years.  In the beginning the water was supplied simply by gravity, but without any problems.  In the third year it stopped coming out – it didn’t make it up to the faucets.  We therefore set ourselves the task of buying a pump.  We needed a centrifugal pump, not an eductor-jet pump… I’ve had to learn a little about all this: a centrifugal pump is not the same thing as an educator-jet pump or a suction pump.  This is a pump that more or less collects the water from the supply line using what’s called a rotating impeller to increase the pressure and the flow; then it forces the water up into the tanks.  This I can explain to anybody.  And anyone who doesn’t want me to have a pump had better supply me water by gravity or deliver it to me.

HT:  So is it illegal to have a water pump?

Juana: There was a time when it was illegal. It still is, in fact, because you have to connect the pump to the supply line.  It doesn’t involve filling a cistern or a large tank.  But I have to get water somehow.  We were able to buy the pump thanks to my husband at that time.  When he would travel he wouldn’t always eat so that he could save the food money given to him by his job.

HT:  How much does a pump cost?

Juana:  Seventy or eighty CUCs (about $80 or $90 USD)… if you can find one.

HT:  Where have you gone to complain about this situation?

Juana: I’ve gone twice to the Communist Party office in this Havana municipality, Arroyo Naranjo, and I should say that the treatment I received was magnificent … the only thing lacking was a solution.  The other day I went to the dispatch office where they told me the water tankers were out supplying water in the municipality and that perhaps they would fill up my tank.  I haven’t had water for four days.  I am down to a pitcher and a pan and my clothes dirty…

The thing is that I work for the government, which is an important point.  My situation is not the same thing as some vagrant, someone who doesn’t contribute anything to this society.  I only stopped working for a short while when my mother got sick…now she’s dead.  I’ve been working for more than twenty years.  I also studied chemistry.

HT:  What is it that prevents them from receiving water normally?  Is there some problem with the water main?

Juana:  The truth is that we don’t know if they’re corroded or cracked or what, since they’re underground.   I’m not a plumber or a hydraulic engineer and nor have I worked for the water department, but my situation isn’t that atypical.

Sometimes the water comes on with plenty of pressure and you’re able to fill your containers in less than an hour, but at other times there’s no water at all, though the water line isn’t broken.  Some people say that the central water main is the one that supplies the water, it begins full but by the time it gets to our block it has declined to nothing.  Since there are a number of people’s pumps tapped in… it’s necessary to wait for them to turn them off for the water to get to you.

In my case, it’s more difficult for the water get to my house because I live in the interior of the building.  Sometimes, when people turn off the pumps and it’s my turn to collect water, it runs out.

Also, water trucks come on Mondays, but they only serve the lower floor.  It’s strictly forbidden to run water in tanks that are at high levels.

Juana alongside the 55 gallon drum her brother filled.

I explained all that to the party officials.  The problem emerged eleven years ago, so the municipal delegate began struggling to address it.  The only thing she requested from the local government was to support her and provide her with the resources to solve it.  She has been doing her work but it seems that she didn’t get a response or sufficient help.  She has not been able to do what she promised us.

“They have created an alert system to inform people of the times when the water will be turned on.  They alert the delegates, the delegates alert the presidents of the CDR (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) and they in turn alert the local residents.  On this occasion it didn’t work.  I told the party official to please review that alert system.

The people with the Water Department told me that they had put an announcement in the paper.  I responded saying that that was a bad place because many people don’t read the newspaper.  People watch the national TV news or the Havana channel Newscast program at 11:00 at night.

But since they put it in the newspaper we didn’t know that the water would be turned on at 3:00 in the morning, so we were left without water.  I explained all that at the company office and also that I have an elderly person in the house (my 85 year-old father) and a sick sister, but even the water truck with its little bit of water didn’t appear.

HT:  How do you do when you have to go so many days without water, like what’s happened for the past four days?

Juana:  Yesterday my brother filled my 55 gallon drum and all the other containers for storing water.  Do you know how far he had to walk?  Two and a half blocks lugging one bucket and a gallon full of water.   He lives a long ways  away in Los Pinos and comes all the way here to help me, in addition to being in charge of his own house.  On those days that he helps with the water, he comes and is in charge of connecting the pump.  This is while I’m at work, because it almost always corresponds to my work schedule.

Fortunately I have him and my other brother who helps me out financially.  But I’ve sometimes had to haul water… My co-workers here must be sick of hearing me to talk about water, and my boss allowed me to go to the party office during the work day.  On Saturday, for example, I can’t work in the morning, so I’ll come in the afternoon, which is in fact the most important time.  I had to let them discount my wages for this morning so that I could make sure I got water.

HT: You’re one of the curators of this gallery.  What does your work consist of?

Juana:  I attend to everything that has to do with the exhibition and all types of publics, those who come to see an exhibit as well as those who come to ask questions or even look for a worker here.  I’m the first face of the gallery.  When I’m affected by a water shortage I sometimes have to miss work.  A person who attends to the public with that kind of concern doesn’t work the same.  I don’t mistreat anyone, but it’s not same

“I told the comrade at the party office who attended me that if he didn’t find some solution in next several days I would go to the Council of State.  I’ll go personally, if they tell me that I should outline the issue in writing, I’ll do just that.”

HT: Why haven’t all the neighborhood residents united to act collectively?  Sometimes the complaint of a single person who doesn’t work, but when the whole neighborhood complains about the problem, a solution can appear.

Juana: The person who has received the complaint is the delegate.  She told us that she was going to bring in a hydraulic engineer to correct the problem of the water line, but like I told you, she hasn’t been able to do anything.

HT:  Is she also affected by the problem?

Juana: No, she lives on the other block… You know, what I don’t understand is that the block on both sides of me have water but mine doesn’t.  I want a hydraulic engineer to come and explain this to me.  And it’s not because of the drought, like the comrade from the party tried to tell me.  It’s true that there’s a drought right now, but this problem has existed for eleven years.

Callejas, the neighborhood where Juana lives.

“Tomorrow I’ll have to pay a plumber to come to install the pump in a different place where I can collect water.  I had to remove it from where it was for reasons I don’t want to talk about here.  Now it will be placed where the plumber understands and it will either pump water or it won’t.  People complain about water at all the delegate feedback meetings.  It’s like a psychosis, people don’t sleep; they have their ears to the ground so they can get busy as soon as they hear water coming.  There used to be water every other day, now it comes every four days.  I understand that there’s drought.  In my house we watch the news and the commentary programs on TV.  I don’t read the newspaper, but I’m informed.”

HT:  Is it that you don’t get a paper at your house or you’re not in the habit of reading one?

Juana:  We don’t get it and I don’t really buy them.  I think the news on TV is enough.  I don’t have time to read.  I have a lot to do at work and at home.  Here in the gallery there’s less work, but I have the responsibility of taking care of the gallery.  The works on display here are valuable, yet sometimes I have to miss work because my problem is real, it’s palpable.  Right now, if you go with a camera, you’ll see that the tanks are empty.

HT:  Will the work that you’re having done guarantee you that you’ll receive water on Saturday.

Juana: The plumber will look for the most suitable place to get water with the pump.  The problem is that I’m the one benefiting least in this whole situation.  It’s not because the neighbors want it like that, in fact they’ve helped me, they’ve often lent me the hose so that I could fill my tank.  But the problem is so critical that people don’t want to burn up their pumps to fill other people’s tanks, like mine, or those of others… That costs money…

For example, once I had the pump running and they turned off the electricity.  I was in the kitchen and I didn’t have time to disconnect it.  The lights came back on suddenly and the pump burnt out.  I had to throw it out.  You have to always keep an eye on a pump, because if it doesn’t get water it will burn out…

I know that because I’m a chemist and I studied hydraulic operations, a subject that has to do with pumps.  When the water comes on it’s like a military maneuver, I spring into action like that.  The day before, you can’t sleep.  Your life revolves around it as a function of that timing.  And if you don’t manage to collect a drop, that will give you an attack, like what happened to me yesterday.

The lack of water even inhibits you from going to the bathroom.  I had to go to work without having collected water.  We’ve endured this for eleven years, that’s why the blame can’t be shifted onto the drought.  I said that to the party officials yesterday… most everybody has a pump on this block, even though it’s a very poor neighborhood.  Those who are without a pump can’t afford to buy one.

HT:  But if this problem has existed for eleven years now, all of you should have complained to the party a long time ago.

Juana:  Look, I had a sick mother for a long time as well as other difficulties that didn’t allow me to take care of that.  If not, I would have gone to the Council of State a long time ago.  I speak for myself; a lot of people don’t like to complain because they think that will create problems for them.  Not me; I go wherever I have to go – armed with the truth.  If someone doesn’t like it, I’m sorry, but there have been serious problems with water here for eleven years.  Also, I’m not complaining; I’m raising a problem, which is something different, and I have every right to do it.

The day following our conversation at her job at the art gallery, I went to visit Juana to take some photos at her house (in the Callejas neighborhood of the Arroyo Naranjo Municipality).  It was 10:00 in the morning but she still hadn’t gotten up.

“What for, if I can’t do anything here in the house?” she asked.

No water had come in that day and the tank that their brother had filled was almost empty.  Dirty laundry was continuing to accumulate, but she doesn’t know when she’ll have enough water to do the wash.

“Do you know what I do to save water?  After I bath, I use the soapy water to clean the bathroom, just like I use the clothes-washing water to flush the toilet.  You can’t waste anything,” she explained.  That afternoon her brother would come to the house again to haul water and fill the 55 gallon drum.