An Inside Look at Cuba’s Constant Struggle for Clean Water


In one hand Manuel Reyes Estrada carried a type and a pencil, within the different a bucket stuffed with small fish and a plastic Bucanero beer cup. “It is like this,” he mentioned. “We, the well being brigade staff, are solely allowed to put in writing with pencils.” His superiors, he defined, use pens. In the afternoon, the superiors go to the homes the place the well being brigade staff have labored earlier within the day — “to examine if now we have performed our work nicely.”

Manuel stopped for a second on the unpaved street within the Cuban metropolis of Holguín to fill in the home numbers on his in any other case empty type. He swept the sweat away from his face.

Every day in cities throughout Cuba, an unlimited array of employees — from inspectors and fumigators to truck drivers and pipe layers — takes to the streets in a coordinated effort to offer clear water to their fellow residents.

Among different obligations, the well being employees conduct exhaustive inspections of rooftop water tanks, making certain that the water is clear and freed from mosquito larvae, thereby serving to to stop the transmission of tropical illnesses comparable to dengue, chikungunya and Zika.

The efforts are a part of an analog, labor-intensive answer in a largely nondigital society.

A good portion of Cuba’s accessible ingesting water is misplaced by means of its leaky and antiquated pipelines — greater than 50 %, by some estimates.

In current years, infrastructure issues have been compounded by droughts and rising temperatures. For a lot of the inhabitants, operating water is out there solely sporadically — in some circumstances, for one or two hours a day, each few days. While it flows, residents retailer the accessible water in cisterns or tanks, which then function potential breeding environments for mosquitoes.

Manuel ignored the barking canine as he entered the home. A girl sporting curlers in her hair confirmed him the spiral staircase that results in the roof. After finding the constructing’s water tank, he used a small mirror to light up its shadowy inside.

Using the plastic beer cup, Manuel scooped 5 little fish from his bucket into the water tank. “Normally we use Abate,” he mentioned, referring to a larvicide, also called temefos, used to deal with water. But the chemical wasn’t accessible, he defined, and so the fish, which eat the larvae, are employed as a pure — if sophisticated — different.

With a background in anthropology, I’ve lengthy been curious about how folks reside and handle their on a regular basis challenges.

During earlier visits to Cuba, I observed the day by day struggles for contemporary water: folks hassling with water pumps, the streets soaked due to defective pipelines, water vans repeatedly plying the roads. Born and raised within the wet Netherlands, the place clear ingesting water is taken with no consideration, I hadn’t anticipated water to be a shortage on a tropical island.

In February 2019, Cubans voted to approve a brand new structure, which, amongst many different provisions, established the appropriate to scrub water. I made a decision to make this constitutional proper a place to begin for a challenge on Cuba’s underreported water disaster.

I traveled to Cuba for six weeks in April and May 2019, and for 4 extra weeks in January 2020. On the primary journey I realized how totally different areas expertise totally different issues — and discover options. I additionally found what number of professions have been concerned in offering water to residents.

By shadowing totally different employees who have been concerned in guaranteeing water entry on numerous elements of the island, I started to see a cross-section of latest Cuba.

In the city of Trinidad, for instance, I met Alexis Alonso Mendoza, who described himself as “the most well-liked man on the town.”

Trinidad is split into a number of districts, every of which often has operating water for 2 hours each 5 days. As the “water-key man,” Alexis is answerable for turning the underground sluices that change the course of the water inside the city.

Using an off-line map, I positioned the small clinics, referred to as policlínicas, the place, at 8 a.m., the inspectors and fumigators of the well being brigade collect earlier than dispersing into the streets.

I climbed aboard a number of water vans, referred to as pipas, which provide water within the occasion of a damaged pipeline or inadequate strain — or when functioning plumbing merely doesn’t exist.

Many of the drivers have been sort sufficient to let me observe how they fill their vans and distribute the water. I witnessed firsthand the paperwork concerned — and the seemingly infinite quantities of time the drivers spent ready to fill their tanks.

I additionally hopped on the horse-drawn carriages that carry the water all through town, and noticed how Cubans — with an ingeniousness and thoroughness — tried to repair their water hoses and pumps with no matter supplies have been accessible to them.

It’s tough to know the complete results of the pandemic on Cuba’s water disaster. For a lot of 2020, the nation largely managed the virus, however a dearth of vacationers led to one of many worst meals shortages in practically 25 years. Infections elevated dramatically after lockdowns have been lifted and the nation’s borders have been opened in November. Since then, further stresses to the general public well being system might have exacerbated inspection, fumigation and supply.

While strolling again to the policlínica on the finish of considered one of his shifts, Manuel, who has labored for the well being brigade for 13 years, mirrored on his work. He was happy, he mentioned, to be “contributing to the well being of my compatriots.” But he additionally enjoys the interactions — visiting folks, having a chat. “Often they invite me for espresso,” he mentioned.

A person on a bicycle greeted him as he rode previous. “Manuel, are you able to carry me some fish tomorrow? I’ll get you some cigars in return.”

Later, Manuel handed his supervisor. “You know the inexperienced home on the nook, the place the older girl lives alone?” he mentioned. “I discovered mosquito larvae within the decrease tank on the patio.”

“OK,” his supervisor responded. “I’ll ship the fumigators to smoke them out. See you tomorrow, mi vida.”



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