Ivan Garcia, 21 April 2017 — There is a slightly damp and cold breeze when Antonio, after drinking a rather bitter sip of coffee, with his wooden cart with rusty steel wheels, moves to a water spout in Manglar Street, very close to an old Sports field in the overpopulated neighborhood of La Victoria, in the heart of Havana.
A couple of cylindrical metallic tanks that can carry 55 gallons of water each are attached to the truck. At seven o’clock in the morning, when the city listens as a symphonized tune, a trail of alarm clocks, and Havanans get ready to go to work or school, Antonio unloads dozens of buckets to several customers in the neighborhood of San Leopoldo.
“Two years ago, for filling a 55-gallon tank, I charged 50 Cuban pesos (equivalent to two dollars) but now, because of the drought which is causing some scarcity, the price has risen to 60 pesos for each tank,” Antonio explains, while lunching on a serving of congrí rice, pork steak and cole slaw and cucumber in a private restaurant.
After five o’clock in the afternoon he goes back to the capital’s neighborhood to sell the water. In one day he can earn 500 pesos, about 20 dollars. “In addition to earning money, I keep in shape,” he says, and shows his trained biceps after almost twenty years carrying buckets of water.
In Havana there are more than 170,000 units that do not receive drinking water in their homes. Some of them due to breaks in the pipes and others because with aluminum sheets and pieces of cardboard and veneers they have raised frightening shacks without bathrooms and lacking the most basic conditions for human life.
According to an official of the state-run Aguas de La Habana, “these people are supposed to receive water in (state) tanker trucks. But because of the lack of gasoline, the drought that affects the country or simply corruption, the ‘pipers’ sell water to those who can pay, and thousands of families do not receive water in a timely manner.”
In Cuba, plagued with a dysfunctional government and low productivity that generates scarcity, anything can become a business. Why not water.
From aguateros, like Antonio, who travel through the cracked streets of the old part of Havana selling water, to the tanker trucks of the state companies that also profit from the precious liquid.
“A full tank at this time costs between 25 and 30 pesos Cuban convertible pesos (about 25-30 dollars US). And demand outstrips supply. The buyers are business owners who have restaurants or rent out lodging, those who have swimming pools in their homes and in buildings where there is water shortage and people have a source of hard currency,” says the driver of a tanker truck.
The problem of the water supply in the capital is longstanding. For lack of a coherent hydraulic policy, the regime has been overwhelmed by something that is as essential as water.
With a population that exceeds two and a half million inhabitants, Havana continues to have as its main source of supply the old Albear aqueduct, a masterpiece of industrial engineering that began to be built in 1858 and was inaugurated in 1893, for a city of 600,000 people.
When Fidel Castro took power in January 1959, and after the October 1963 passage of Hurricane Flora, which left more than a thousand dead in the eastern part of the island, hundreds of dams and reservoirs of water were built that multiplied the country’s water storage capacity by a factor of five.
In 1987 the construction of the El Gato aqueduct began in the southeastern part of Havana. But because of lack of maintenance of the aqueduct and sewer networks, more than half of the water that was distributed was lost by leaks and ruptures of the pipes.
In the midst of the current drought, which plagues 81% of the country and is considered the worst that Cuba has suffered in the last hundred years, authorities that manage water resources have tightened measures to prevent water being wasted.
Manuel Manso, Aguas de La Habana’s ombudsman, explained that an inspector squad of 108 workers is trying to interact more directly with consumers, whether business or residential. One of the provisions is the application of fines, with 870 already having been imposed on private companies, in amounts of up to one thousand Cuban pesos (about 42 dollars).
Although the regime has invested nearly 9 million dollars in the rehabilitation of 550 miles of water networks in the capital, the effort appears to be inadequate.
“The company repairs a section, but then the water pressure damages another section that has not yet been repaired. Also, the quality of the repairs is not always good. And the technological obsolescence and timespans between maintenance complicate things. It’s like ‘plowing the sea,’ (a complete waste of effort),” says an engineer.
A health and epidemiology specialist is worried that “the water deficit in the residential sector could have an impact on the emergence of new outbreaks of Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes, carriers of dengue fever, chikungunya and other deadly diseases. Plus there is the proliferation of rats and cockroaches. Water scarcity, poor cleanliness in streets and public spaces, and the irresponsibility of citizens who dump garbage on any street corner have made Havana one of the dirtiest cities in Latin America.”
If the drought persists, along with poor hygiene in the city and problems with water supply, which cause families to store water in inappropriate containers without adequate protection, the arrival of summer could bring the breeding ground for a huge epidemic of mosquito-borne diseases.
“Every year we run the same danger, for not carrying out the necessary preventative work and the lack of hygiene in the city,” said one official. And walking on the edge of a cliff always carries risks.
The worst has not yet come. But the conditions are given.
Note: Although this article is limited to Havana, the water shortage due to drought has long been affecting all provinces.