Punishment from the heavens

The damages caused by drought in the first months of 2015 are alarming Cubans, despite recent rains. Crops, reservoirs and important cities are under tension due to the deficit in stored water.

Numerosas presas han visto disminuir drásticamente sus niveles de agua durante la temporada de seca que se extendió desde el último cuatrimestre de 2014 hasta mayo de 2015.

Foto: Jorge Luis Baños

The intense rains of last week did not ease in Cuba the fears generated by a drought that is harshly punishing agriculture and livestock and the water supply to the population. In the midst of heavy showers that made it necessary for the Civil Defence to issue a warning for the entire country, the comments and statements in the press started increasing about severe damages due to the reduced precipitation in the first months of the year and the low availability of water reserves.

The data are as worrisome as the aridness dominating important agricultural areas and the growing traffic of cistern trucks and water tankers that come to the aid of rural populations and urban barrios.


The magnitude of the damages brought back the memory of the most alarming drought in the last decades, that of 2003-2004, or the comparisons made with the natural disaster most feared in the Caribbean. The daily Granma described it as damaging as the hurricanes when looking back at the news of the damages.


The magazine with the biggest circulation in Cuba, Bohemia, ten years ago baptised the water agony as a silent hurricane, when the stored water decreased to a fourth and two million persons received the most valuable resource through water tankers. This year there are threats of something similar.


At the close of May, the Cuban reservoirs were storing 36 per cent of their total capacity. The 242 reservoirs managed by the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INRH) only contained 3.317 billion cubic metres of water. According to this institute, 265.5 millimetres of rain fell in the first five months of the current year, equivalent to 68 per cent of the historic average for this period.


The provinces where it has rained the less are Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo, in the country’s eastern region, both with less than half of the historic average. They are followed by Artemisa and Pinar del Río, in the west, and Ciego de Avila and Villa Clara, in the centre.


The situation, however, is tenser from the point of view of available water in reservoirs and underground basins. The province of Sancti Spíritus was only storing in its reservoirs 17.5 per cent of the capacity. Cuba’s largest reservoir, the Zaza, located in this province, was storing 137.4 billion cubic metres at the close of May, 13 per cent of the possible storage space, the second lowest level in its history.


The reservoirs in the provinces of Granma, with 19 per cent of their potential, Las Tunas (23.4 per cent), Pinar del Río (24.6 per cent), Camagüey (27.4 per cent) and Santiago de Cuba (29.1 per cent) are also almost dry.


Cuba’s principal rice crops, which the government has tried to give a boost to reduce the import of that foodstuff, basic in the Cuban die, are located in three of the provinces under the greatest pressure, Sancti Spíritus, Granma and Pinar del Río.


Since late April, the reservoirs of Pinar del Río stopped supplying water to the rice paddies of Los Palacios Agribusiness Grain Enterprise, which because of this plans to plant just two thirds of the area available for farming. As a consequence of the drought, officials from that entity are forecasting losses of 18,800 tons of rice. They would not produce around 31 per cent of the 59,000 tons contracted for the current year.


The Sur del Jíbaro Agribusiness Grain Enterprise in Sancti Spíritus, which depends on the supply of water from the Zaza reservoir, is also anticipating severe cuts in its production. Though the Cuban government has not made statements regarding this, it is very probable that it will be forced to increase the imports of the cereal, whose prices strongly went up in 2014.


General reports about agriculture estimate the planted areas affected at 75,772 hectares, while more than 324,000 head of cattle receive water through water tankers. Despite the severity of these damages, and their implication for the country’s foreign trade balance, the contractions and the subsequent impact on the living conditions are the most visible. In important cities like Santiago de Cuba, Holguín and the capital several municipalities’ supply cycles have been lengthened. A total of 1,193,282 persons were receiving water through cistern trucks throughout the country.


According to the INRH, out of the underground basins, 68 are decreasing, 27 are close to the historic minimum, and seven are already in a critical state, one of the most worrisome symptoms of the present drought. The Institute of Meteorology estimates that this natural adversity is already present in 41 per cent of the national territory, but 75 per cent has already been affected by the lack of rainfall.


In the face of the magnitude of the disaster and the millions of dollars’ worth of damages of this silent hurricane, the recent intense rains arrived as a blessing from heaven, despite some construction collapses caused by this in Havana. In provinces like Sancti Spíritus, the increase of six million cubic metres in the Zaza reservoir, though still very poor, was commented with rejoicing.


In an emergency meeting called by the Civil Defence, the scientific director of the Institute of Meteorology, Abel Centella, anticipated a favourable forecast for the precipitations in June. In his opinion, they can be close to the historic mean in all the regions of the Cuban archipelago. But he warned that the situation continues being tense because the accumulated deficit is still high. The situation, said Centella, doesn’t change with a few rainy days. (2015)

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