BY GARY MARX | Chicago Tribune
Manuel Batista walked through his small field of plantains and corn, surveying the damage wrought by a drought that has decimated crops, killed thousands of cattle and left residents scraping for water across huge swaths of this island nation.
“This will not produce anything,” said Batista, 68, as he grabbed a foot-high cornstalk just outside the small farming community of Cacocum. “It hasn’t rained in nine months.”
All across central and eastern Cuba, farmers, ranchers, city dwellers and government officials are scrambling to deal with a punishing drought that began a decade ago and intensified in the last two years.
Although traditionally arid, the provinces of Holguin, Camaguey and Las Tunas hold some of Cuba’s finest pasture and farmland and have long been crucial to this communist nation’s dairy, beef and agricultural industries.
Leandro Bermudez, deputy director of Cuba’s National Institute of Hydraulic Resources, said strong winds are pushing clouds through the region without precipitation. Rainfall is 55 percent below normal in Holguin province this year.
More than 12,500 cattle have died in Holguin alone in 2004 and milk production has fallen 20 percent. The price of beans, plantains, sweet potatoes and other staples has soared in private markets.
The drought has caused millions of dollars in losses and officials are spending millions more digging wells, building a water pipeline and taking other measures to try to ease the crisis - huge sums in an impoverished nation struggling through tough economic times and a battle with the United States.
“This is the worst drought in 40 years,” Bermudez said. “The situation is critical.”
In Cacocum, which is 10 miles south of the city of Holguin, the normally dark, fertile soil is cracked and brittle. Rib cages protrude from cattle grazing in denuded pastures as ranchers feed livestock ground-up sugar cane stalk and other substitutes for their normal feed in an effort to keep them alive.
Two of the three reservoirs supplying water to Holguin city, Cuba’s fourth-largest city, are empty and the third has only about a two-month supply of water, Bermudez said.
At Guirabo, a reservoir that normally supplies 35,000 people, a herd of goats grazes in a vast basin usually submerged in 20 feet of water. The reservoir dried up in September.
Thousands of wells also are dry in Holguin province, adding to water shortages that forced one of the region’s largest hospitals to postpone some elective surgeries and shut off water in non-essential areas during morning hours.
Armando Lamadrid, director of the V.I. Lenin Hospital in Holguin city, said he is steering more of the sick to outpatient care rather than admitting them to the hospital.
Lamadrid said the city’s four other hospitals have adopted similar measures even though government officials are giving hospitals priority as they ration and distribute water supplies.
“We have 200 to 250 less patients now in the hospital,” said Lamadrid, whose hospital can handle 830 patients. “We are directly affected because we are connected to one of the reservoirs that dried out.”
Although strapped for resources, officials have responded aggressively to the crisis, sinking hundreds of new wells and hauling in food from other regions.
Officials also have moved thousands of cattle to more fertile areas and are working furiously to finish a 32-mile pipeline that will draw water to Holguin city from Cuba’s largest river, the Cauto. The $5 million pipeline could be completed next month.
With water taps dry, scores of trucks and Soviet-era tractors fitted with portable tanks carry water to Holguin city. But residents say the vehicles arrive in their neighborhoods only about once a week.
In Lenin, a sprawling Holguin city neighborhood of drab, prefabricated apartment buildings, Carlos Palacio - a local baseball player - was dripping with sweat as he lugged two buckets of water weighing about 90 pounds from a portable tank up to his fifth-floor apartment.
“I’ll go up and down twenty times,” Palacio, 34, said. “It’s very hard, but there is no other choice.”
Nearby, one resident collected water from the same tank using an old paint can while another was set to fill a plastic ice cream container. Tony Garcia, a 26-year-old lifeguard, strained as he lifted a bucket of water to his fifth-floor apartment using a pulley attached to his building.
Jorge Diaz, a retired automobile mechanic who has trouble walking because of illness, fashioned a makeshift pump from the motor of an old Soviet washing machine to get water to his second-floor apartment. He hasn’t had tap water in two months.
“Traditionally, we’ve had a problem with water but this year the drought is more aggressive,” said Diaz, 70, shirtless in the stifling heat.
The drought comes at a difficult time for Cuba, whose centralized economy remains weak and is sustained largely by tourism and hundreds of millions of dollars in remittances sent annually by Cubans living in the United States to relatives on the island.
In recent weeks, President Bush has instituted a series of measures, including further limiting remittances and visits by Cuban-Americans to the island, in an effort to squeeze President Fidel Castro’s government.
Many Cubans are concerned the measures will further impoverish their country, where health care and education are free, but the average salary hovers around $15 a month.
“I am very worried,” said Jose Manuel Bosch, a 38-year-old resident of the eastern city of Baracoa. “We don’t know what will happen.”
In Holguin city, whose narrow streets are plied by horse-drawn carriages, vintage Soviet motorcycles with sidecars and bicycle taxis, officials and residents said they are not sure how long they can hold out if the drought continues.
The forecast is not good. The last significant rain fell in September 2003 and meteorologists are predicting near or below normal rainfall for the rest of this year.
“If that happens we will not recover,” Bermudez, of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources, said.