Breakdown in 100-year-old pipeline leaves Cienfuegos without water

Flooding from a main water pipe break on Dolores Avenue in Cienfuegos, Cuba.
Flooding from a main water pipe break on Dolores Avenue in Cienfuegos, Cuba. 5 de Septiembre weekly

A major water line on Dolores Avenue, one of the main streets in Cienfuegos in central Cuba, collapsed Sunday night leaving part of the population without access to potable water for the second time in less than a week.

According to official Cuban press, there is a 12-inch hole that appeared following repairs in the same pipeline the previous week.

Manuel Marchante López, director of the Water and Sewage Company in Cienfuegos, blamed deterioration of the pipeline network and traffic for the problem.

“The vibration produced by the passing of cars provokes these breakdowns, plus the water pressure,” Marchante López told local media. “When services are provided to the lower level areas, you have to compensate... with higher water pressure...”

Cienfuegos, with a population of 174,769 according to the latest census, was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2005. But the deterioration of its infrastructure and buildings is a recurring problem for the city, which was founded in 1819 by French settlers.

Some residents complained of frequent disruptions in water service.

“Those who didn’t store water, won’t have any,” said Berta, a resident of the district of San Lazaro. “I have a cistern that I commissioned years ago because one can’t rely on the water service here. There is always either a breakage in Paso Bonito or some other problem; they are always looking for an excuse for not providing water to the people.”

During the last weekend alone there were four similar disruptions, which forced local authorities to distribute water using tanker trucks. Some people in the neighborhood of Buena Vista were angry because they had to pay between 10 and 15 convertible Cuban dollars known as CUC — between $10 and $15 — to a tanker truck driver for filling the cisterns in their buildings. On Monday, two new breakdowns were reported in the industrial zone and in the Quinientos neighborhood.

“Sometimes one of the neighbors, who is with the government, manages to get a tanker truck to come. But if not, we have to carry the water ourselves, which is a lot of work,” said Yakelin, a 34-year-old housewife.

“We need water for everything. Imagine, with these tall buildings, what it means to have to haul in water ourselves,” she said.

The water main break has created another problem for those who live in Cienfuegos: a poor public transportation system made worse by massive potholes and traffic detours. Horse-drawn carriages, a preferred mode of transportation, can’t get through Dolores Avenue, a main artery that connects the city with various highly-populated neighborhoods, including Pueblo Griffo, Tulipán, Buena Vista and Caunao.

“Now the carriages and the buses must take a large detour, and eventually they will end up leaving the road impassable,” said longtime resident Isabel Diaz. “That happened last time and you could not get around the potholes left after the repairs.”

The pipeline network in Cienfuegos is more than 100 years old and Cuban media has reported that replacing the pipes would cost about $40 million, a sum not available in the national budget. Presently, the province has six reservoirs and one pumping station.

Each year, about 3,400 million cubic meters of water is lost as a result of leaks, according to data provided by the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INRH).

Efforts to reach water authorities in Cienfuegos were not immediately successful. A secretary reached by phone said they were "on site" dealing with repairs.

While the quest to find water in the midst of hot weather in Cienfuegos continues — with temperatures already reaching as high as 90s — a retired teacher, is glad to have used the most recent remittance sent by her son in Miami to install a water tank on the roof of her house. The tank costs about 1,600 Cuban pesos, the equivalent of three months’ average salary.

“It’s the best investment I’ve made,” she said.