Rainy Season Off to a Poor Start

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA TIMES, May 25 (IPS) — Despite major underground water reserves and the start of the rainy season, people in the central region of Cuba are anxiously scanning the skies in the face of scant rainfall, which is needed to ease a drought that has become more severe in recent years.

“The situation is tense. As of mid-May, no rain had been reported, and in April, average rainfall did not exceed 50 millimeters,” commented Benito Rafael Migoya, a provincial agriculture official in Ciego de Ávila, capital of the central province of the same name 460 km east of Havana.

Ciego de Ávila province has seven reservoirs, which are only 27 percent full because of the rainfall shortage. “There is also a very strong depression of the subsoil; the aquifer fills up quickly, but we need rain for that,” added Migoya, who talked to IPS during a tour prepared for foreign correspondents.

Agriculture in the province is dependent on the underground aquifer, estimated at some 970 million cubic meters of water. “Normally, you would find water four meters deep, but now there are places where you can’t even find it 20 meters down, because of the drought,” he said.

To minimize the impact, authorities took steps to control and regulate water usage, to guarantee the residential supply and essential crop irrigation. The most important farmland has mechanized irrigation systems.

“The principal measures, though, are conservation and more efficient use of water,” Migoya said. Meanwhile, farmers consulted by IPS warned that the drought was even more critical for livestock, basically because of its impact on pastureland, which needs abundant water to grow.

Seventy-two percent of soil in this province is of high quality for agriculture. This, along with its water reserves and high crop yields, makes it possible for it to supply Havana and the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, the country’s two most populous provinces.

Havana and Pinar del Rio in western Cuba are the provinces most affected by the water shortage.

A report from the National Meteorology Institute’s Weather Centre said that by the end of the November 2010-April 2011 dry season, 79 percent of the country was suffering from rainfall shortages. Of that total, 41 percent suffered moderate shortages and 17 percent extreme shortages.

The Centre blamed the decreased rainfall on La Niña, the Southern Oscillation, whose most intense influence was recorded in December. La Niña, which periodically affects meteorological patterns worldwide and whose inverse is El Niño, results from the cooling of surface water in the Equatorial Pacific.

The influence of La Niña, however, “diminishes gradually starting in April or May,” the official report said.

But the light to moderate rainfall seen in May did not hold out much hope for drought-stricken areas.

Weather Centre experts insisted that a relatively dry May was to be expected, and that the recovery from the dry period would be moderate. They recommended prudent water use, especially in the western region, where the capital is located and where below-normal rainfall is forecast.

In Havana, a city of 2.2 million people, the problem is aggravated by the state of the water distribution network, although an extensive restoration program is underway. In the neighborhoods where the situation is most critical, tap water is available only once every four days, while in others, water is distributed by tanker trucks.

“The water crisis has reached Vedado (a centrally-located Havana neighborhood), don’t waste it,” says a handmade sign posted on the door of an apartment building elevator.

“We never had water shortages here, but now there are days that it doesn’t flow into the cistern. We don’t know if it is because of the drought or because they cut it off for repairs,” one building resident said.

Although drought is part of the natural variability of the Cuban climate, research shows that its frequency and intensity have mounted in the last 40 years. The country’s prevention and adaptation strategies focus on drought as much as on hurricanes.

The worst drought suffered by this Caribbean island nation in recent years occurred in 2004 and 2005, directly affecting two million people in more than 900 villages, towns and cities. According to official estimates, the drought caused more than 1.2 million dollars’ worth of losses. Meanwhile, 2009 was recorded as the fourth driest year in the last century.

The rainy season lasts from May to October, but given Cuba’s geographic characteristics, it is hurricanes that tend to bring truly intense precipitation. These rains, however, are usually associated with flooding and winds that leave a trail of destruction. The hurricane season runs from June to November.