Reports from Cuba: Carriers, tanks and trucks, the ways to get water

By Luz Escobar in Translating Cuba:

Carriers, Tanks And Trucks, The Ways To Get Water

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14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 27 April 2016 – Under the hot sun, while passersby seek shade under the balconies, one hears the sound of truck on Jovellar Street in Havana. It goes along loaded with tanks full of water, and as it passes the residents look out their windows and run inside their houses looking for a bucket to fill. The commotion in the neighborhood is reminiscent of holidays, but there is no music, no fun, just a water carrier selling his coveted merchandise door-to-door.

Idalmis, a young mother who lives on the route taken by El Primo, yells from the balcony that she wants to fill her tank. She asks him not to leave, that other neighbors need to store water in jars, pots and even a fish tank. It’s been months since the tanks in their homes have had a drop of water to dampen everything.

El Primo is a modern water supplier. He doesn’t carry buckets up the stairs. In his truck he has a little motor and some hoses that reach out to his customers and can fill any receptacle in a trice. Connected to an extension cord that someone loans him, the purr of the pump can be felt. He has the panache of a distant descendant of Francisco de Albear y Lara (a Cuban engineer from the 1800s responsible for Havana’s water supply), but his name will never appear on a monument in the Cuban capital.

El Primo’s method, despite its sophistication, has its limitations. His hoses can’t reach above the second floor, but, he says, “the buildings in Central Havana aren’t that high.”

While filling a blue tank, which once held vegetable shortening and now contains the water for a family of four, the waterseller explains that since he settled in the city, coming from the east of the island, this has been his work. “The police have confiscated by motor several times, but the neighbors appreciate me so much that they themselves have come and gotten me out of jail,” he says.

In less than five minutes, a line has already formed in front of the truck. Antonia, a retired woman who lives alone on the first floor, tells about the time that a policeman prohibited the water-seller from filling his tanks at the water cistern near the Pioneer Cinema. “The whole block mobilized and we got him released from the station the same day,” recalls.

The supply cycles of the Havana Water Company have gotten longer in most of the capital’s districts. Areas like Old Havana are supplied almost entirely by tanker trucks (rather than piped water), but in the poorest neighborhoods, where there isn’t the money to buy it on a more frequent schedule, the trucks only show up “every seven days.” They prioritize “the schools, daycares, and the polyclinics,” the driver of one of these vehicles told 14ymedio on Monday, while supplying a building on Teniente Rey Street.

Abel Salas, first vice president of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INRH), explained that about 70,000 people in Santiago de Cuba get water by way of tanker cars, while in the capital the figure is around 60,000. The deterioration of the water system aggravates the situation. According to data provided by the official press, “companies registered in the capital waste in one month almost 830,000 cubic meters” of water. The latest reports published on the subject indicate that 45% of the water pumped in the country is lost in breaks and leaks.

The contents of one tank can cost between 10 and 15 CUC, which is usually paid for by collecting money among all neighbors. The owners of B&Bs and private restaurants have the luxury of buying it for their businesses, but for most residents in Havana the price is too high.

On the outskirts of the capital, in areas such as Mantilla and Arroyo Naranjo, water comes through the pipes every other day but “with very little force” residents complain. There are also abundant water carriers like El Primo, and when their trucks show up in a street everyone crowds around to fill any receptacle they can.

For these water carriers there will be a lot of work in the coming months. Although the Climate Center at the Meteorology Institute predicted a rainy season with “normal precipitation” also warned that “the accumulated volumes will not solve existing deficits.” The cry of “water” will continue to ring in Havana neighborhoods.