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



In a single hand Manuel Reyes Estrada carried a kind and a pencil, within the different a bucket stuffed with small fish and a plastic Bucanero beer cup. “It’s like this,” he stated. “We, the well being brigade staff, are solely allowed to jot down with pencils.” His superiors, he defined, use pens. Within 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 completed 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 kind. He swept the sweat away from his face.

Day-after-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 supply clear water to their fellow residents.

Amongst 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 forestall the transmission of tropical ailments similar to dengue, chikungunya and Zika.

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

A good portion of Cuba’s obtainable ingesting water is misplaced by way of its leaky and antiquated pipelines — greater than 50 p.c, by some estimates.

Lately, infrastructure issues have been compounded by droughts and rising temperatures. For a lot of the inhabitants, working water is on the market solely sporadically — in some circumstances, for one or two hours a day, each few days. Whereas it flows, residents retailer the obtainable water in cisterns or tanks, which then function potential breeding environments for mosquitoes.

Manuel ignored the barking canine as he entered the home. A lady 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.

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

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

Throughout earlier visits to Cuba, I seen the every day struggles for recent water: folks hassling with water pumps, the streets soaked due to defective pipelines, water vans constantly 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 correct to scrub water. I made a decision to make this constitutional proper a place to begin for a venture on Cuba’s underreported water disaster.

I traveled to Cuba for six weeks in April and Could 2019, and for 4 extra weeks in January 2020. On the primary journey I discovered 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 varied elements of the island, I started to see a cross-section of up to date Cuba.

Within the city of Trinidad, for instance, I met Alexis Alonso Mendoza, who described himself as “the preferred man on the town.”

Trinidad is split into a number of districts, every of which normally has working water for 2 hours each 5 days. Because the “water-key man,” Alexis is accountable for turning the underground sluices that change the route of the water throughout the city.

Utilizing an off-line map, I positioned the small clinics, referred to as policlínicas, the place, at eight 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.

Most of the drivers have been form sufficient to let me observe how they fill their vans and distribute the water. I witnessed firsthand the forms 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 the town, and noticed how Cubans — with an ingeniousness and thoroughness — tried to repair their water hoses and pumps with no matter supplies have been obtainable to them.

It’s tough to know the total 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 almost 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 could have exacerbated inspection, fumigation and supply.

Whereas 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 stated, to be “contributing to the well being of my compatriots.” However he additionally enjoys the interactions — visiting folks, having a chat. “Usually they invite me for espresso,” he stated.

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. “ the inexperienced home on the nook, the place the older girl lives alone?” he stated. “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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