"What Comes Out of the Pipes Looks Like Coffee"

Camagüey residents complain about how often bad water comes out of the pipes. (La Hora de Cuba)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, 8 July 2019 — The highest summer temperatures arrive and everyone dreams of water. Whether in a glass with ice, in a comfortable pool or in the waves of the sea. These are also the moments when one faces the greatest risk of being infected with pathogens that come from bad handling of what we drink or eat, the experts warn us.

The sanitary authorities remind us throughout the year that the water that arrives through the pipes or water trucks must be treated before being consumed, warnings that are redoubled in the months of greater heat increase the consumption of prepared beverages , ice creams, slushies and cocktails.

With more than a million students on vacation and domestic life also stressed by the imperatives of heat, for many families it becomes difficult and expensive to rigorously maintain the process of water purification for the substance that comes out of the taps or is acquired by some other source of supply near their homes.

In most Cuban homes residents treat the water in some way, using methods such as filtering it through appliances with active carbon, boiling it, or adding drops of chlorine-based purifying products. But there are also many families who ingest it without subjecting it to any kind of improvement or purification.

A special report published by the University of Miami in 2017, detailing the results of almost 500 surveys of travelers arriving from the Island, determined that one of the most serious problems with the water supply mentioned was: “obsolete pipelines are so rusty that water is often contaminated.”

“Here the water comes looking like coffee, but the worst is the smell of rust,” laments Lianne Céspedes, a resident of the city of Camagüey where problems with the water supply are widely denounced by citizens. “We have two small children and for them we have to buy water from a vendor who has a well,” she tells 14ymedio.

“For the adults of the house we boil the water and filter it and all that takes a lot of work, my mother is the one who takes care of it and dedicates several hours each day to be able to guarantee that the water we drink is moderately safe,” explains Céspedes. “We can not buy water at the ’shopping’, so this is the only thing we can do.”

The purchase of water bottles is a luxury that few can afford and in the networks of state stores there have been cases of employees who falsify these containers by simply filling them with tap water. It is common for tourists to come down with cases of the so-called “traveler’s diarrhea,” a gastroenteritis that is usually caused by bacteria endemic to local water.

“I have not been able to enjoy anything, since I arrived, I’m vomiting and having diarrhea,” says Thomas, a 29-year-old German who was waiting on the weekend at the Cira García international clinic in Havana, from which he left with a prescription to buy ciprofloxacin and the recommendation to also take oral rehydration serums.

“I have no doubt where I got sick,” says the traveler. “The day I arrived I went to a small bar in Old Havana and I had two mojitos, the next morning when I got up I felt bad and I am convinced that it was ice which wasn’t made with safe water.”

Thomas’s story is so common that many private guides recommend to their customers that they notconsume any drink or cocktail with ice. “I tell them to only drink canned and bottled beverages and, preferably, directly from the container because many glasses are also poorly washed,” says Mónica, 24, an English translator who is dedicated to giving tours of Havana’s historic disctrict.

In Cuba, as in other countries of the region, the protozoa of the genera Cryptosporidium and Giardia are the parasites that cause the most common diarrheal outbreaks of water origin. People can accidentally swallow them when they drink water at recreational places, or even at home if, for some reason, it is not completely clean.

Research carried out by specialists of the Provincial Center of Hygiene and Epidemiology in Ciego de Ávila warns that in the case of Cryptosporidium the chlorination of water does not destroy it and it can “survive in incompletely filtered water.” It is transmitted through the fecal-oral route through consumption of unfiltered water, through the ingestion of food, as well as through the water in swimming pools, cow’s milk, and contaminated vegetables.”

Other medical research conducted between 2013 and 2014 in Havana and Santiago de Cuba revealed that Cubans have a low perception of the risk of acquiring Acute Diarrheal Disease (ADD). The majority of respondents said they consume the water as it arrives through the pipes, due to lack of time or resources, especially among those who do not have manufactured or liquefied gas for cooking.

“It is impossible to boil the water because here we cook with an electric stove and sometimes with a little wood in the patio,” says a neighbor from Palmarito del Cauto in Santiago de Cuba. “We had a filter that my daughter bought me the last time she came to Cuba but to keep buying the pieces and the carbon is very expensive,” she says.

Water filters, mainly manufactured in South Korea, which are sold in the network of national stores, require replacements several times a year. The authorities of the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) have also warned that these processors, manufactured with activated carbon and other elements, are not capable of eliminating the most dangerous bacteria and microorganisms.

Nor do customers inquire too much about the quality of the water used in state or private businesses that provide food services. On the central 23rd street in Havana, a small line of users waited this Saturday to buy a ’frozzen’, a light ice cream made mainly of water and flavor extracts.

“This is the cheapest thing you can take on the streets and costs three Cuban pesos (CUP — roughly 12¢ US),” a student at the nearby Faculty of Economics told this newspaper. “Everyone knows that with this price it is very difficult for this to be done with safe water, but we are already immunized,” he adds wryly. “But if I had children I would not give them a ’frozzen’ for anything in the world.”


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