Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Cuba: Digging for water, Havana

Replacing Havana's failing mains water system
On our first night in Havana there was no water in the room we had booked.  It was not the best start on a hot and humid night and after a journey of about 12 hours from Gatwick.  The 'excuse' that half of Old Havana was without mains water rang hollow.  How was it that the inferior room we had been given with access to a shared bathroom did have water?  How was it that the en suite room we had booked would have water by tomorrow morning but didn't now?  Oppressed by the humidity, fatigued by the flight, these seemed imponderable questions.

The next morning the truth was plain to see.  The streets were being dug up. The sound of pneumatic drills ricocheted off the buildings.  Old and failing cast iron water pipes were being pulled out and replaced by plastic ones.  Rather slowly.  Half of Old Havana probably was without water.

A Bicitaxi driver clambers over a 'filled-in' trench
People were relying on water tankers to deliver their supplies and they were barely keeping up.  The low rumble of their diesel engines soon became a familiar sound to us, and the thick cloud of black smoke from their exhausts a familiar smell.  They struggled to negotiate the narrow streets of the old city, lumbering up and down the pavements around tight corners, leaving trails of splashed water behind them.  They worked almost round the clock.

Hospitals, schools and large hotels had priority. Ordinary residents were at the bottom of the pecking order.  This included our 'Casa' (bed and breakfast) whose owner had to beg, plead and pay for water in order to keep running.  The tanker would often arrive late at night, honking its horn in what we came to think of as celebratory style although in truth the driver was simply in a hurry to make the delivery and get away.  The noise of water being pumped into the house was deafening.

We had several more evenings without water although there was always a bathroom somewhere in the building that had some.  Different storage tanks seemed to feed different parts of the building. We never quite worked it out.

The inconvenience we suffered was minor.  At the end of three weeks we knew we would come home to a water supply that we never question.  How often do we feel true gratitude for water at the turn of a tap?    

The power of dustpan and brush: resilience in the face of chaos
As we left, the problems seemed to be getting worse.  Once pipes had been replaced and a trench filled in, it did not seem to follow that the water supply in that area was back on.  And, researching the subject at home now, I realise that this is a massive infrastructure headache that has been throbbing not for weeks or months but for years.

A few days ago there were elections in Cuba for municipal assemblies.  Municipal councillors are responsible for things like water supply and street repairs.  There has been much discussion in the media about the two dissidents who stood for election.  They were unsuccessful this time but change is in the air.  Perhaps it can start with a dustpan and brush.

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