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Water Scarce at the 'Singing Frog'

 IPS 03 June 2019

(Originally published: 08/2009) Canta Rana, which somewhat ironically translates as "Singing Frog", is more than just a neighbourhood in this town in the drought-stricken eastern Cuban province of Holguín. Here, at the highest point in the area, which provides a view of the entire town and the sugar mill tower, there is a huge tank marked by rust, the passage of time and the scarcity of water. Local residents would like to turn the page and forget about the severe drought that devastated the region for nearly a decade, but they can't. Reminders are everywhere: dried up wells, the rusted pipes of a distribution system that used to work well and the ever-present threat of future periods of drought.  - By Dalia Acosta

IPS English

BÁGUANOS, Cuba - Canta Rana, which somewhat ironically translates as "Singing Frog", is more than just a neighbourhood in this town in the drought-stricken eastern Cuban province of Holguín. Here, at the highest point in the area, which provides a view of the entire town and the sugar mill tower, there is a huge tank marked by rust, the passage of time and the scarcity of water.

Local residents would like to turn the page and forget about the severe drought that devastated the region for nearly a decade, but they can't.

Reminders are everywhere: dried up wells, the rusted pipes of a distribution system that used to work well - even though supplies were conditioned by the sugar industry, which uses huge amounts of water - and the ever-present threat of future periods of drought.

"Every once in a while that tank bursts a new leak. Last time, the water pressure flooded my house with sand," Sheila Hidalgo, 39, tells IPS. Her house is located a few metres from the water tank, which hasn't had proper maintenance for the last decade or so.

"Our water needs can't continue to depend on the activities of the sugar mill. People desperately want the milling to finally be over, when it should be the other way around: the (November to June) harvest should be a time of splendour for this town," says Hidalgo, an expert in the local tax office in the town of Báguanos.

Normally, water uses the force of gravity to run down from the Canta Rana tank to the rest of the town. But there is so little water now that it only reaches a few families and lacks the force to make the slight upward climb to the rest of the households.

The rest of the town gets clean water from a government water truck that comes in once a week, or from 46 stands set up around town by the authorities where water is sold from fiber cement tanks at a nominal fee of less than one cent of a peso per litre. The tanks are supplied by the water trucks, and people come and fill up their bottles or other containers.

In addition, private citizens haul in and sell water from nearby wells that have filled again.

Báguanos, a predominantly rural municipality of 55,000 people located more than 700 km from Havana, has two main urban areas - the town of the same name, population 8,800; and the town of Tacajó, population 10,000 - along with 102 small villages.

Although water is scarce in this area, it depends on the sugar industry and several agribusiness companies.

While the construction of the Charco Largo reservoir in Tacajó, with a capacity of 20.5 million cubic metres, ensured water supplies for most people in the two main towns, the infrastructure is still lacking for the distribution of water to the rural population of Báguanos.

Only 12.5 million cubic metres of water in the reservoir are used for human consumption. The rest of the water pumped from the reservoir goes to a tank located near the Ramón López agribusiness complex - known as the "one million tank", for the number of cubic metres of water that it was originally able to hold - and from there to Canta Rana.

"Of the 11 litres of water per second that come in from the reservoir, four litres go to the water trucks and the remaining seven go to the tank. The priority is supplying water for the sugar mill's cooling system, and water is piped to the people only two hours a day," says José Ramón Álvarez, a technical worker for the local water system.

The water available does not cover the requirements of the sugar mill, which needs 25 to 30 litres per second during the November to June harvest, let alone the needs of the town's 8,800 people.

"Many of the people who come to my office show up to complain about this problem. The complaints are constant, which is understandable," Delfina Álvarez, who has worked for 22 years at the reception desk in the municipal headquarters of the governing Cuban Communist Party, tells IPS.

Addressing the problem

A development project undertaken by local authorities and the National Institute of Water Resources (INRH), with the support of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), is aimed at improving water quality and supply for the local population.

The initiative includes the installation of a 1,800 cubic metre cement water tank, a water treatment plant, and new high-density polyethylene pipes.

The project will directly benefit some 20,000 people in the towns of Báguanos and Tacajó and will indirectly improve the lives of people in surrounding villages and rural areas.

The plant "will treat 60 litres of surface water per second, considered sufficient for the current needs" in the municipality, according to an INRH source who said the present situation in the municipality stood out for its severity, even in the difficult provincial context.

A full 98.7 percent of the province's population of over one million people receive potable water, although the province has one of the lowest rates of water availability in the country: 495 litres per person per day, according to the latest National Statistics Office (ONE) figures, from 2006.

ONE sources say 95.6 percent of Cuba's 11.2 million people had access to potable water in 2005, with 78.8 percent receiving piped water in their homes, 5.4 percent receiving supplies from water trucks, and 15.8 percent getting their water from a source no more than 300 metres from their homes.

The second Cuban follow-up report on progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000, states that by 1995 this Caribbean island nation had already met the goals on access to clean water and sanitation.

These specific targets involve halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and without access to basic sanitation by 2015, from 1990 levels.

In Cuba, 98.2 percent of the urban population and 87.3 percent of the rural population has water and sanitation coverage, says the report. The main problems are found in the eastern part of the island, where the National Potable Water and Sanitation Programme, with the support of international donors, is making the biggest efforts to address the issue.

The new Báguanos water system project is part of that effort, designed not only to guarantee access to high-quality potable water, but also to help diversify the local economy and generate employment in different sectors, including the production of high-density polyethylene pipes.

Once the new water system is operating - scheduled to occur in around four years - the focus will shift to achieving the efficient use of available water, which will always depend on climate variability, the rainy season and periods of drought.

"We will work with the water meter system to see if it makes sense to measure water use or not, and whether it is possible to raise public awareness on the need to save water," hydraulic engineer Sergio Pérez, coordinator of Potable Water and Sanitation in AECID's Havana office, explains to IPS.

Health problem

"The water that is piped from here is not chlorinated," says Álvarez, pointing to the water in the Ramón López sugar mill tank.

Because the piped water received by some households two hours a day is not fit for drinking, the government ensures up to 20 litres of potable water a day for each family for less than one cent of a peso per litre (less than one cent of a dollar).

Access to clean water, which is closely linked to several of the eight MDGs, has an influence on the health of the population, due to its relationship with the transmission of infectious diseases, for example, as well as the question of personal hygiene.

"In Báguanos, high rates of acute diarrhea are not reported, but the quality of the water does have a serious impact on the female population, especially pregnant women," Laine Cáceres, an obstetrician who has worked here for 12 years, comments to IPS.

"A vaginal infection caused by the yeast-like fungus monilia, which is closely linked to the water used in bathing, can pose a risk of birth before the 37th week of pregnancy, cause post-partum complications or lead to low birth-weight babies," said the doctor.

In fact, experts say water quality is the cause of the main health problems in this part of Cuba.

People need to be taught that the water they get from their faucets is not fit for consumption, says Sheila Hidalgo. "Not everyone has the same standards of hygiene," she adds.

"When there is water from the reservoir, people almost stop coming here for water. They prefer to use the water from their faucets instead of coming over here," 57-year-old Ziomara Proenza tells IPS. She and her husband run one of the local government stores that sell drinking water in the neighbourhood of Canta Rana.

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