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Posted August 11, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Healthcare

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Eastern Cuba’s worst drought in 40 years has turned cooking, washing clothes and scrubbing floors into a housecleaning nightmare.
Then there is showering. Rebeca Falla, 59, is accustomed to taking long showers twice daily for relief from the humid 90-degree weather, but now she has to settle for a brief drizzle. “It leaves you in a very bad mood,” she said.

The water shortage has affected thousands of residents of Holguín, 435 miles east of Havana, and the area hardest hit. Surrounding towns in Holguín Province and the eastern provinces of Camaguey and Las Tunas have also suffered.

Yucca, banana and sugar cane crops have withered away, and nearly 13,000 bony cows have been slaughtered this year.

Authorities issued an alert in Holguín in July 2003, when rain failed to fill the city’s three reservoirs. Two months later, one of the reservoirs dried up. Then another went dry in May when rainfall dropped to 40 percent below normal.

“Never before have two reservoirs dried up,” said Leandro Bermúdez, an official of Cuba’s National Institute of Hydraulic Resources. “It’s been very tense here.”

Although things have improved lately with more frequent rain showers, it will be weeks before reservoirs and wells are replenished. The reservoir that dried up in May has recovered only enough to guarantee 30 days of water for hospitals and clinics in Holguín, Cuba’s fourth largest with a population of 300,000.

Faucets run empty, and most wells dried up long ago.

Still, social solidarity runs deep in Cuba, and the few remaining people with water on their property opened wells and hoses to neighbors.

“They have never turned anyone away,” Idalia Gongora, 43, said as she and her daughter filled buckets from her neighbor’s well. “Thank goodness, they are very charitable people. If not, we would have suffered much more.”

Cuba’s centralized Communist government reacted rapidly, digging more than 100 new wells in and around the city and setting up dozens of stores selling drinking water for two Cuban cents, or less than a penny, per liter bottle.

Government trucks and tractors were converted into water carriers, and about 115 vehicles now cruise the city daily delivering water. It is free but mostly nondrinkable.

Entrepreneurs with makeshift trucks and a government permit are also helping to fill the gap, charging a small price for each liter.

In the Vista Alegre neighborhood of Holguín, the community council rallies about 30 people at 8 a.m. to plan the day - organizing truck routes to every block, making sure clinics and bakeries get what they need, deploying volunteers who work as late as 9 p.m.

“We spend more time here than in our own homes,” said Gloria Asencio Galvez, the acting council leader.

Holguín residents await the opening of a $5 million, 34-mile pipeline from the Cauto River in southern Cuba. Water is supposed to start flowing on Aug. 31 and fill half the city’s daily needs. But it will not reach the countryside, where the economic pinch is sharpest.

Rafael Aguilera, 55, a farmer, said the daily yield of milk from his skinny cows had fallen to less than two pints a day from four gallons. All the milk now goes to his 8-year-old son.

Mr. Aguilera lost his corn crop, and the family has little drinking water. Parched, brittle land stretches out all around.

“Nothing makes it to us out here,” said Aleda Hernández, his wife. “We’re off the map.”

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