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

In one 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 is like this,” he mentioned. “We, the health brigade employees, are only allowed to write with pencils.” His superiors, he defined, use pens. In the afternoon, the superiors go to the homes the place the well being brigade workers have labored earlier within the day — “to check if we have done our work well.”

Manuel stopped for a second on the unpaved highway 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.

Every day in cities throughout Cuba, an enormous array of staff — 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 tasks, the well being staff 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 ailments akin 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 accessible consuming water is lost by means of its leaky and antiquated pipelines — greater than 50 %, by some estimates.

In latest years, infrastructure issues have been compounded by droughts and rising temperatures. For a lot of the inhabitants, operating water is on the market solely sporadically — in some instances, 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 referred to as 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 complicated — different.

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

During earlier visits to Cuba, I seen the every 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 consuming water is taken for granted, 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 precise to scrub water. I made a decision to make this constitutional proper a place to begin for a project 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 discovered how totally different areas expertise totally different issues — and discover options. I additionally found what number of professions had been concerned in offering water to residents.

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

In the city of Trinidad, for instance, I met Alexis Alonso Mendoza, who described himself as “the most popular man in town.”

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

Using an off-line map, I positioned the small clinics, known 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, known 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 had been variety sufficient to let me observe how they fill their vans and distribute the water. I witnessed firsthand the paperwork concerned — and the seemingly countless 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 had 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 were lifted and the nation’s borders had 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 at the top 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 health of my compatriots.” But he additionally enjoys the interactions — visiting folks, having a chat. “Often they invite me for coffee,” he mentioned.

A person on a bicycle greeted him as he rode previous. “Manuel, can you bring me some fish tomorrow? I will get you some cigars in return.”

Later, Manuel handed his supervisor. “You know the green house at the corner, where the older lady lives alone?” he mentioned. “I found mosquito larvae in the lower tank on the patio.”

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

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