While tourists drink water out of a bottle, Cubans ration and boil a
BY BRIANA ERICKSON
Men sit on the steps and play a hand of cards, women chat outside barred
windows, stray dogs missing tufts of fur trot by.
Taxi drivers call it the last stop in Havana.
The locals call the neighborhood El barrio de Jesus María.
Up the steep concrete steps, a multi-generational family of seven shares
a pastel blue apartment and the basic rations common in Cuba — including
a sparse and potentially unclean water supply that sloshes around in a
dark, old cistern just inside the doorway.
Cuba seems like a water-rich country, with abundant rainfall, rivers
crisscrossing the island and groundwater that bubbles up in turquoise
But it has always struggled to provide enough fresh water for its people.
Part of the problem is that the water isn't where the people are. While
Cuba's capital city is in the wetter western part of the country, its
population of over 2.1 million means that it has less water per capita
than many other regions. Atop distribution problems, Havana and other
parts of the nation also lack sufficient infrastructure and
water-quality treatment. The strain has worsened in recent years due to
Back inside the fading blue apartment, a bouncy 3-year-old cheers to the
sound of Spanish-speaking trolls on the television.
The little boy, called Diandro, grabs his stuffed Spiderman toy.
"Es mi favorito," he says.
His neighborhood, made up of 120 to 150 blocks, has an open-air market
for meat and fruit and a mini supermarket. The outdoor market opens at
10, but locals get there at 9 to make sure they can get enough food for
They live in southern Havana, on a street about a 20-minute drive from
where tourists usually venture.
Those who live here don't have cars, and the buses don't come to this
neighborhood. Residents walk 16 blocks or more to work, or ride their bikes.
The water in their makeshift well comes from government trucks, "las
pipas," when the neighborhood is in need.
The family rations 10 buckets a day per person.
Every workday, Yan Alvarez picks up a stack of white papers labeled
Each signifies at least 10 places where he must pump water throughout
Old Havana. Each home takes 20 to 30 minutes to fill.
"No llueve," says the 40-year-old who has worked the job for seven years.
It doesn't rain.
The hefty man says he worked 18 hours the day before: 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.
He pulls up his old truck to a pink apartment. Number 109 on a street
called Aguacate. His wife Leonida guides him from the passenger side.
He drags the long hose from the blue tank into the home, snaking around
the truck and into the house of Yanin Amaga, who stands graciously at
Along with neighbors around the city, she says she looks forward to the
day the water truck comes. Sometimes she must stretch her meager fill-up
for as many as seven days before she sees Alvarez again.
"Café?" She asks, bringing him a small mug with a saucer.
As he sips his coffee, his 3-year-old son Alejandro, shirtless and
wearing plaid swim trunks, hops out of the truck and trips in his blue
In the home at El barrio de Jesus María, Diandro's Aunt Elena Rodriguez,
her son Fabio and her spouse Eduardo Torres live downstairs.
All three share a room and a twin bed. Together, they make the
equivalent of 20 Convertible Cuban Pesos a month as dance teachers.
(About $23 USD at a recent exchange of $1 USD to 0.87 CUC).
Outside the family's room, natural light floods from a roofless hallway.
To the right is the area the family calls the well, a crumbling cistern
where they fill buckets of water for their daily needs: Cleaning.
Cooking. Showering. Hand-washing. Dishes. And on Sundays, laundry. They
boil water for drinking.
If the pipas come when they aren't home, they must call and bribe the
truck people with money to come back, Torres says.
Producing safe drinking water for his family has become a daily ritual.
Although Torres has had to boil water since he was a child, he says it
never gets easier.
"Aquí no vivimos, acquí solo sobrevimos," he says.
We don't live here, we only survive here.
In addition to their fill-up from the water truck, water also trickles
in from the streets every day, topping off their supply.
Torres, dark haired and charismatic, crouches into the well. Placing a
red bucket into the hole, he tugs up the splattering water. When the
water level gets too low, the family members hoist it up with a cable.
To have running water, the pipes would cost the family $150 to $200 CUC.
(About $172 to $230 USD). That's more than Torres and Rodriguez make in
a year as dance teachers.
He fills a pot and lugs it to the stovetop, turning the knob. As the gas
kicks on, the blue light flickers. The gray water sizzles; floating
specks of sedimentary rock, calcium and chloride swirl around.
Las Pipas drivers
Outside the Aguas de la Habana, where Yan and the other Las Pipas
drivers refill their water tanks, workers in rain boots and long pants
twist a rusty wheel.
Water spouts into four trucks simultaneously. It cascades down the sides
and drips onto the road. Not all fills the yellow, blue and green tanks;
some is lost in mud puddles on the street. All over Cuba, water is also
lost through leaking pipes, adding to the problems with water supply.
The smell of gas permeates the air as a blue truck with a dolphin on the
back hums by. It holds 8,000 liters. The other trucks hold 10,000. Some
12,000. Each heads throughout the city to homes in need of water.
Families are encouraged to boil it for safe drinking.
Outside a home down the street, two men wear navy shirts that read
"Aguas de la Habana." Prying up a sewer hole with a lit cigarette
between his teeth, one of the men shakes his head. There are
20,000-liter pipas, too, and they go straight to the hotels, he says.
While Cuban residents ration, tourists drink bottled water by the liter
and take hot showers as if they're at home.
The Cuban government has been working to build new water supply
infrastructure around the country. But it hasn't been enough for people
in Havana and other cities.
The more important strategy long-term is to protect Cuba's natural water
resources and ensure the growing tourist industries use water wisely and
help fund sustainable solutions, says Roberto Pérez Rivero of Cuba's
Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation for Nature and Humanity, a scientific
"Taking the water from here to there, that can solve the problem. But
for a while," he says. Without a more holistic solution than the pipas,
"soon everyone will be in scarcity."
Boiling water at home
Back at the apartment, the water is still bubbling on the stove.
Rodriguez grabs a handkerchief and carries the steaming water to the
cement staircase to cool. They can drink it in two hours.
She grabs a lid to one of the water buckets and uses it as a cutting
board. She wraps her fingers around a handle-less knife and chops
tomatoes with the blade, her curly dark hair framing her face.
She tosses a tomato slice into the air. Her pit bull Mentira jumps up to
"Ella Italiana," Rodriguez jokes.
She grabs a handful of black beans and dips them into the water to wash,
holding them out in her palm. The color contrasts with the turquoise on
"Me encanta mi país," Rodriguez says.
I love my country.
"Pero… a Cuba le falta todo," she says.
But... Cuba lacks everything.
THIS STORY IS PART OF A "CUBA: OUTSIDE IN" MULTIMEDIA STORYTELLING
PROJECT DONE BY STUDENTS FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA COLLEGE OF
JOURNALISM AND COMMUNICATIONS.
Source: Safe drinking water is a commodity in Cuba | Miami Herald -