Manuel Reyes Estrada carried a shape and a pencil in one hand, and a bucket filled with small fish and a plastic bucanero beer mug in the other. “It is like that,” he said. “We, the employees of the health brigade, are only allowed to write with pencils.” His superiors, he explained, use pens. In the afternoon, the superiors visit the houses in which the employees of the health brigade worked earlier in the day – “to check whether we have done our job well”.
Manuel stopped for a second on the dirt road in the Cuban city of Holguín to fill in the house numbers on his otherwise blank form. He brushed the sweat from his face.
Every day, in cities across Cuba, a multitude of workers – from inspectors and fumigators to truck drivers and pipelines – take to the streets to provide clean water to their fellow citizens.
Among other things, health workers conduct extensive inspections of the water tanks on the roof to ensure the water is clean and free of mosquito larvae, helping to prevent the transmission of tropical diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and zika.
The effort is part of an analog, labor-intensive solution in a largely non-digital society.
Much of Cuba’s available drinking water is lost to its leaky and outdated pipelines – more than 50 percent, according to estimates.
In recent years, infrastructure problems have been exacerbated by droughts and rising temperatures. For a large part of the population, running water is only available sporadically – in some cases every few days for an hour or two a day. During the river, residents store the available water in cisterns or tanks, which then serve as a potential breeding environment for mosquitoes.
Manuel ignored the barking dog as he entered the house. A woman with curlers in her hair showed him the spiral staircase that leads to the roof. After he found the building’s water tank, he illuminated the shady interior of the building with his small mirror.
With the plastic beer cup, Manuel scooped five small fish from his bucket into the water tank. “We usually use Abate,” he said, referring to a larvicide, also known as temefos, that is used to treat water. But the chemical was not available, he explained, and so the fish that the larvae eat are being used as a natural – if complicated – alternative.
With a background in anthropology, I have long been interested in how people live and face their daily challenges.
On previous visits to Cuba, I noticed the daily struggles for fresh water: people struggling with water pumps, the streets soaked due to faulty pipelines, water trucks constantly driving the streets. Born and raised in the rainy Netherlands, where clean drinking water is taken for granted, I didn’t expect water to become scarce on a tropical island.
In February 2019, Cubans approved a new constitution that laid down the right to clean water, along with many other provisions. I have decided to make this constitutional law a starting point for a project on the underreported water crisis in Cuba.
I traveled to Cuba for six weeks in April and May 2019 and for another four weeks in January 2020. On the first trip I learned how different areas have different problems – and found solutions. I also discovered how many professions were involved in providing water to residents.
By shadowing various workers who were involved in ensuring water access in different parts of the island, I saw a cross-section of what is now Cuba.
In the city of Trinidad, for example, I met Alexis Alonso Mendoza, who described himself as “the most popular man in town”.
Trinidad is divided into several districts, each of which typically has two hours of running water every five days. As the “water key man”, Alexis is responsible for turning the underground locks that change the direction of the water in the city.
With the help of an offline map I found the small clinics called Policlínicas, where the inspectors and fumigators of the health brigade gathered at 8 a.m. before they spread out onto the street.
I got into several watercraft, so-called pipas, which deliver water when the pipeline is broken or the pressure is insufficient – or when the sanitary facilities are simply not working.
Many of the drivers were kind enough to let me watch them fill their trucks and distribute the water. I’ve witnessed the bureaucracy firsthand – and the seemingly endless time the drivers spent waiting to fill their tanks.
I also got into the horse-drawn carriages that carry the water around town and watched how Cubans – with ingenuity and thoroughness – tried to fasten their water hoses and pumps with whatever materials they had at their disposal.
It is difficult to know the full impact of the pandemic on the Cuban water crisis. For much of 2020, the country largely controlled the virus, but a lack of tourists led to one of the worst food shortages in nearly 25 years. Infections increased dramatically after the lockdowns were lifted and national borders opened in November. Since then, additional pressures on the public health system may have exacerbated inspection, fumigation and delivery.
When Manuel, who has worked for the health brigade for 13 years, returned to the Policlínica at the end of a shift, he thought about his work. He was pleased to “contribute to the health of my compatriots”. But he also enjoys the interactions – visiting people, chatting. “They often invite me to coffee,” he said.
A man on a bicycle greeted him as he drove past. “Manuel, can you bring me fish tomorrow? I’ll get you some cigars for it. “
Manuel later passed his superior. “You know the greenhouse on the corner where the elderly lady lives alone?” he said. “I found mosquito larvae in the lower tank on the terrace.”
“OK,” replied his supervisor. “I’ll send the fumigators to smoke them out. See you tomorrow, mi vida.”