Manuel Reyes Estrada in one hand carried a form and a pencil, in the other was a bucket filled with small fish and a plastic Bucanero beer mug. “It’s like this,” he said. “We, members of the medical brigade, are only allowed to write in pencil.” His superiors, he explained, used a pen. In the afternoon, the superiors visited the homes where the medical brigade staff had been working earlier in the day – “to check if we were doing our job well.”
Manuel paused for a second on an unpaved road in the Cuban city of Holguin to fill out his blank form with a house number. He wiped the sweat from his face.
Every day in towns across Cuba, lots of workers – from inspectors and disinfectants to truck drivers and pipe layers – take to the streets in a concerted effort to provide clean water to their fellow citizens. .
Among other responsibilities, health workers conduct a thorough inspection of rooftop water tanks, ensuring that the water is clean and free of mosquito larvae, thereby helping to prevent the spread of tropical diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and zika.
These efforts are part of an analogue, labor-intensive solution in a largely non-digital society.
By some estimates, a significant portion of Cuba’s available drinking water is lost through leaky and old pipes – more than 50%, according to some estimates.
In recent years, infrastructure problems have increased due to droughts and rising temperatures. For the majority of the population, potable water is only available sporadically – in some cases, an hour or two a day, every few days. While the water flows, people store existing water in reservoirs or reservoirs, which are then used as potential breeding environments for mosquitoes.
Manuel ignored the barking of dogs when he entered the house. A woman wearing a hair curler showed him the spiral staircase leading up to the roof. After locating the building’s water tank, he used a small mirror to see inside its darkness.
Using a plastic beer mug, Manuel scooped five small fish from his bucket into the water tank. “Usually we use Abate,” he said, referring to a larvicidal drug, also known as temefos, used to treat water. But chemicals aren’t available, he explains, and so fish eat the larvae, which is used as a natural – if complex – alternative.
With a background in anthropology, I have long been interested in how people live and manage their daily challenges.
During my previous visits to Cuba, I noticed daily struggles for fresh water: people fidgeting with water pumps, streets drenched with faulty pipes, water trucks constantly on the road. Born and raised in a rainy Netherlands, where clean water is taken for granted, I did not expect water to be scarce on a tropical island.
In February 2019, the Cuban people voted to adopt a new constitution that, among other things, establishes the right to clean water. I decided to make this constitutional right as the starting point for a project on Cuba’s unreported water crisis.
I traveled to Cuba for six weeks in April and May 2019, and for another four weeks in January 2020. On my first trip I learned how different regions experienced problems. different problems – and find the solution. I also explore how many occupations are involved in providing water to residents.
By overlaying the different workers involved in ensuring access to water in different parts of the island, I began to see a cross-section of contemporary Cuba.
In the town of Trinidad, for example, I met Alexis Alonso Mendoza, who describes himself as “the most famous man in town”.
Trinidad is divided into several counties, each with two hours of potable water per five days each. As the “key holder of the water”, Alexis is responsible for rotating the underground sewers that change the direction of the water in town.
Using an offline map, I locate small clinics, called Policlínicas, where, at 8 a.m., inspectors and disinfection of the medical brigade gather before scattering into the street .
I climb on some water tanker, called a pipette, that provides water in case the pipes are broken or not pressurized enough – or when the plumbing works simply doesn’t exist.
Many of the drivers were kind enough to let me see how they filled the trucks and distributed the water. I have seen with my own eyes the bureaucracy involved – and the seemingly endless amount of time drivers spend waiting to fill their tanks.
I also jumped on wagons carrying water throughout the city and observed how Cubans – with finesse and thoroughness – tried to repair their plumbing and pumps with whatever material was available to them. surname.
It’s hard to know the full impact of the pandemic on the Cuban water crisis. For much of 2020, the country had largely controlled the virus, but a shortage of tourists led to one of the worst food shortages in nearly 25 years. Infections increased significantly after the bans were lifted and the country’s borders opened in November. Since then, additional tensions on the public health system could exacerbate. additional inspection, fumigation and delivery.
Upon returning to Polínica at the end of one of his work shifts, Manuel, who had been working for the medical brigade for 13 years, reflected on his work. He said he was very happy to “contribute to the health of my people”. But he also loves interactions – visit people, chat. “Usually they invite me to have coffee,” he said.
A man on a bicycle greeted him as he passed by. “Manuel, can you bring me some fish tomorrow? In return I will get you a few cigars. “
After that, Manuel adopted his supervisor. “You know the corner green house where the old woman lives alone?” he say. “I found mosquito larvae in a storage tank in the courtyard.”
“Yes,” answered his supervisor. “I will send disinfectants to suck them out. See you tomorrow, mi vida. “