Some ran outside to take showers under the rain, other scrambled to collect every last drop in plastic tanks, pails, pots or any other container at hand, and quite a few seemed to be living one of the happiest moments of their lives: for the first time in months, rain was finally falling in this drought-stricken city in eastern Cuba.
“It has to keep raining. If it doesn’t, I don’t know what will become of us,” said Vivian Aguiar, a young mother who works in the tourism industry.
The situation in Holguín, the capital of the province of the same name, located some 740 kilometres east of Havana, has become “very difficult,” she told IPS, “and it’s getting worse.”
“There hasn’t been piped water in my neighbourhood for over two weeks now. And when the water does come, there isn’t enough pressure for it to reach the tanks on the roof of our house, and we have to fill everything up by hand,” she explained.
As a result, the people of Holguín spend their days anxiously awaiting the tanker trucks that distribute water as equitably as possible throughout this city of 300,000, or walking back and forth from the distribution points that sell drinking water for less than a penny a litre.
“The wells have been contaminated. There are only a few in the city that are still safe, but it’s difficult to get to them. The only water that’s safe to drink is the water they sell, and it’s not always available,” said Aguiar.
“I’m really careful because I have a young child, but people are desperate and drink any water they can get their hands on. That’s really dangerous,” she added.
In the meantime, while bottled mineral water is sold in the stores, it is not a viable option for her or most other people in the city, since it is only available in the hard currency shops, at a cost of almost one dollar for a litre-and-a-half bottle.
The average salary in Cuba, when converted into dollars, is less than 15 dollars a month.
“People who have to get by on only their salaries can’t afford that kind of luxury,” said Aguiar.
According to official sources, over 5,000 wells in the city have dried up, but there are still 71,438 providing water for the population. A specially created state company has drilled over 200 new wells since the drought began.
Nevertheless, when a new well is drilled, there is no guarantee that the water will be potable. Moreover, the recent rains in Holguín, the first to fall in the province in many months, were not sufficient to fill up the reservoirs, bring up the level of water in the rivers, or revive the withered crops.
Miguel Díaz Canell, first secretary of the governing Communist Party of Cuba for the province of Holguín, said the current drought is the worst seen in the past three years.
Since the early 1980s, annual precipitation has only surpassed the normal average of 1,323 millimetres in 1987 and 2001. Drought has plagued the province for eight years now, and began to threaten the capital in 2003.
Sources at the Holguín branch of the National Water Resource Institute indicate that before the supply problems caused by the current drought began, the city received 1,100 litres of water a second, or 95,000 cubic metres a day.
It now receives barely 67 litres of water per capita per day. Some of that water is piped in from the Cauto River, the longest in Cuba, some is brought by train from nearby communities, and some is distributed by tanker trucks.
But every time there is a breakage in the pipeline that brings water from the Cauto River to Holguín—something that happens on a regular basis—the supply drops to 13 litres per person.
The construction of a more than 50-kilometre-long pipeline to transport water from the river was hailed as the city’s “salvation” last year, but the pipes purchased from an Italian company proved substandard, and cannot withstand the water pressure required.
“Every time a section of the pipeline breaks, it has to be removed and replaced with another. The work involved can take several days, and these are days when less water is available. They inform the public in the newspapers when it happens, but what good is that?” commented Alvaro Martínez, a 43-year-old craftsman.
Earlier this month, Díaz Canell announced the creation of a new municipal-level water management structure aimed at “more effective distribution of water to the population,” according to a report published Apr. 18 in the provincial weekly newspaper Ahora.
The Communist Party secretary noted that there has been a progressive depletion of underground water reserves and a significant drop in agricultural production as a result of the drought.
He added that the residents of Holguín have learned to live with the drought, developing truly remarkable survival strategies.
Aguiar can attest to this fact. “We wash clothes once a week or once every two weeks, and then use the same water to clean the house or flush the toilet. I’ve even started saving the water that I use to wash food before I cook it,” she said.
“Before, it was my husband’s job to go out and get water, and the rest of the family dealt with ways to make it last. Now we all go out to look for water. But there still never seems to be enough, and you get obsessive about the whole thing,” she added.
Enrique Guzmán, a 47-year-old schoolteacher, has a different take on the situation. “They say we’re worse off than we’ve ever been, but I think we’re better for it. We’ve gotten tired of agonising about the problem and are concentrating on trying to solve it without thinking about it too much.”
While people seemed to talk about nothing else but the “water problem” several months ago and looked weary and tense most of the time, today the city’s residents seem to be regaining their calm and returning to their normal daily routines.
This change also stems in part from the efforts made by the authorities to provide the public with a wider range of recreational options and services at affordable prices. “It’s not enough to provide for consumption-related needs. People need spiritual enrichment as well,” said Guzmán.