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

Across the country, battling water scarcity requires a vast array of workers, from inspectors and fumigators to truck drivers and pipe layers.

Photographs and Text by Sanne Derks for The New York Times

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with travel restrictions in place worldwide, we launched a new series — The World Through a Lens — in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Sanne Derks shares a collection of images taken in Cuba in 2019 and 2020.

In one hand Manuel Reyes Estrada carried a form and a pencil, in the other a bucket filled with small fish and a plastic Bucanero beer cup. “It is like this,” he said. “We, the health brigade employees, are only allowed to write with pencils.” His superiors, he explained, use pens. In the afternoon, the superiors visit the houses where the health brigade employees have worked earlier in the day — “to check if we have done our work well.”

Manuel stopped for a second on the unpaved road in the Cuban city of Holguín to fill in the house numbers on his otherwise empty form. He swept the sweat away from his face.

In Havana, a woman waits for a water truck to offer up its contents.
In Havana, a woman waits for a water truck to offer up its contents.
Health workers fill out their forms by hand.
Health workers fill out their forms by hand.

Every day in towns across Cuba, a vast array of workers — from inspectors and fumigators to truck drivers and pipe layers — takes to the streets in a coordinated effort to provide clean water to their fellow citizens.

Among other responsibilities, the health workers conduct exhaustive inspections of rooftop water tanks, ensuring that the water is clean and free of mosquito larvae, thereby helping to prevent the transmission of tropical diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika.

The efforts are part of an analog, labor-intensive solution in a largely nondigital society.

Javier Almeida Camejo works as a fumigator in the city of Matanzas. “I just work in the mornings,” he said, adding that he enjoys his job. “In the afternoons I just chill.”
Javier Almeida Camejo works as a fumigator in the city of Matanzas. “I just work in the mornings,” he said, adding that he enjoys his job. “In the afternoons I just chill.”
A health worker collects mosquito samples near a river in Matanzas.
A health worker collects mosquito samples near a river in Matanzas.

A significant portion of Cuba’s available drinking water is lost through its leaky and antiquated pipelines — more than 50 percent, by some estimates.

In recent years, infrastructure problems have been compounded by droughts and rising temperatures. For much of the population, running water is available only sporadically — in some cases, for one or two hours a day, every few days. While it flows, residents store the available water in cisterns or tanks, which then serve as potential breeding environments for mosquitoes.

Tourists enjoy the rooftop pool at a hotel in central Havana. In the background, water tanks adorn the roofs. Many tourists are unaware of the island’s struggle to provide fresh water.
Tourists enjoy the rooftop pool at a hotel in central Havana. In the background, water tanks adorn the roofs. Many tourists are unaware of the island’s struggle to provide fresh water.

Manuel ignored the barking dog as he entered the house. A woman wearing curlers in her hair showed him the spiral staircase that leads to the roof. After locating the building’s water tank, he used a small mirror to illuminate its shadowy interior.

Using the plastic beer cup, Manuel scooped five little fish from his bucket into the water tank. “Normally we use Abate,” he said, referring to a larvicide, also known as temefos, used to treat water. But the chemical wasn’t available, he explained, and so the fish, which eat the larvae, are employed as a natural — if complicated — alternative.

Manuel Reyes Estrada, using a small mirror to illuminate its dark interior, peers inside a water tank.
Manuel Reyes Estrada, using a small mirror to illuminate its dark interior, peers inside a water tank.
A woman climbs the stairs to her roof to check if a health worker has placed enough fish in her water tank. In the absence of insecticide, the fish, which eat mosquito larvae, are used to clean the tanks.
A woman climbs the stairs to her roof to check if a health worker has placed enough fish in her water tank. In the absence of insecticide, the fish, which eat mosquito larvae, are used to clean the tanks.

With a background in anthropology, I have long been interested in how people live and manage their everyday challenges.

During previous visits to Cuba, I noticed the daily struggles for fresh water: people hassling with water pumps, the streets soaked because of faulty pipelines, water trucks continuously plying the roads. Born and raised in the rainy Netherlands, where clean drinking water is taken for granted, I hadn’t expected water to be a scarcity on a tropical island.

Blue water tanks dot the rooftops in Old Havana.
Blue water tanks dot the rooftops in Old Havana.

In February 2019, Cubans voted to approve a new constitution, which, among many other provisions, established the right to clean water. I decided to make this constitutional right a starting point for a project on Cuba’s underreported water crisis.

I traveled to Cuba for six weeks in April and May 2019, and for four more weeks in January 2020. On the first trip I learned how different areas experience different problems — and find solutions. I also discovered how many professions were involved in providing water to residents.

In recent years, officials have made a push to renovate the pipelines in Havana. Aging iron and stone pipes are being replaced by plastic pipes, which are less prone to leakage.
In recent years, officials have made a push to renovate the pipelines in Havana. Aging iron and stone pipes are being replaced by plastic pipes, which are less prone to leakage.
Yamislain Leyva Bertran sits inside her small house with her baby, Taila, after providing access to the health workers to put covers on her water tanks.
Yamislain Leyva Bertran sits inside her small house with her baby, Taila, after providing access to the health workers to put covers on her water tanks.

By shadowing different workers who were involved in guaranteeing water access on various 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 described himself as “the most popular man in town.”

Trinidad is divided into several districts, each of which usually has running water for two hours every five days. As the “water-key man,” Alexis is responsible for turning the underground sluices that change the direction of the water within the town.

Alexis Alonso Mendoza is responsible for turning the underground sluices that change the direction of the water within Trinidad. He describes himself as “the most popular man in town.”
Alexis Alonso Mendoza is responsible for turning the underground sluices that change the direction of the water within Trinidad. He describes himself as “the most popular man in town.”
When running water is available, it’s common to see people fixing broken garden hoses in order to quickly fill the tanks on their roofs.
When running water is available, it’s common to see people fixing broken garden hoses in order to quickly fill the tanks on their roofs.

Using an off-line map, I located the small clinics, called policlínicas, where, at 8 a.m., the inspectors and fumigators of the health brigade gather before dispersing into the streets.

Health workers gather outside a small clinic in Matanzas.
Health workers gather outside a small clinic in Matanzas.

I climbed aboard several water trucks, called pipas, which supply water in the event of a broken pipeline or insufficient pressure — or when functioning plumbing simply doesn’t exist.

Many of the drivers were kind enough to let me observe how they fill their trucks and distribute the water. I witnessed firsthand the bureaucracy involved — and the seemingly endless amounts of time the drivers spent waiting to fill their tanks.

A water-truck driver, called a pipero, fills his tank.
A water-truck driver, called a pipero, fills his tank.
Water trucks, called pipas, supply water in the event of a broken pipeline or low pressure — or simply because functioning plumbing doesn’t exist. In a neighborhood near the city of Cardenas, a truck visits twice a week to supply water, which residents carry to their houses using buckets.
Water trucks, called pipas, supply water in the event of a broken pipeline or low pressure — or simply because functioning plumbing doesn’t exist. In a neighborhood near the city of Cardenas, a truck visits twice a week to supply water, which residents carry to their houses using buckets.

I also hopped on the horse-drawn carriages that carry the water throughout the city, and observed how Cubans — with an ingeniousness and thoroughness — tried to fix their water hoses and pumps with whatever materials were available to them.

A vendor in the town of Trinidad transports water to an area with sporadic water access.
A vendor in the town of Trinidad transports water to an area with sporadic water access.
In some areas the water pressure is too low to fill rooftop tanks. Here, an external pump is used to provide extra force — though such pumps are considered luxury items that not everyone can afford.
In some areas the water pressure is too low to fill rooftop tanks. Here, an external pump is used to provide extra force — though such pumps are considered luxury items that not everyone can afford.

It’s difficult to know the full effects of the pandemic on Cuba’s water crisis. For much of 2020, the country largely controlled the virus, but a dearth of tourists led to one of the worst food shortages in nearly 25 years. Infections increased dramatically after lockdowns were lifted and the country’s borders were opened in November. Since then, additional stresses to the public health system may have exacerbated inspection, fumigation and delivery.

In Santiago de Cuba, health workers use fish to rid water tanks of mosquito larvae — but the fish aren’t always provided. After work, Juan Eduardo Martín visits a polluted waterway near his house on the outskirts of the city to catch some.
In Santiago de Cuba, health workers use fish to rid water tanks of mosquito larvae — but the fish aren’t always provided. After work, Juan Eduardo Martín visits a polluted waterway near his house on the outskirts of the city to catch some.
In January 2020, because of problems with its aqueduct, parts of Trinidad went without running water for 20 days. People living in higher areas could tap unprocessed water from the pipelines, before it entered the faulty aqueduct. Here, Dariel Arüelles climbed a hill with his grandfather to tap the unfiltered water at the house of a family friend and carried it back home.
In January 2020, because of problems with its aqueduct, parts of Trinidad went without running water for 20 days. People living in higher areas could tap unprocessed water from the pipelines, before it entered the faulty aqueduct. Here, Dariel Arüelles climbed a hill with his grandfather to tap the unfiltered water at the house of a family friend and carried it back home.

While walking back to the policlínica at the end of one of his shifts, Manuel, who has worked for the health brigade for 13 years, reflected on his work. He was pleased, he said, to be “contributing to the health of my compatriots.” But he also enjoys the interactions — visiting people, having a chat. “Often they invite me for coffee,” he said.

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

A watery street scene in Trinidad. By some estimates, more than 50 percent of Cuba’s available drinking water is lost through its leaky and antiquated pipes.
A watery street scene in Trinidad. By some estimates, more than 50 percent of Cuba’s available drinking water is lost through its leaky and antiquated pipes.

Later, Manuel passed his supervisor. “You know the green house at the corner, where the older lady lives alone?” he said. “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.”

Water is distributed near Havana’s National Capitol Building.
Water is distributed near Havana’s National Capitol Building.

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