In early March, large numbers of fish were lost at the Muñoz Dam in the municipality of Camagüey, Florida. Nobody probably knows how many tons it was. For days, the dead fish “flooded” the deepest parts of the reservoir, whose reserves were rapidly shrinking due to the lack of rain and agricultural use.
The Muñoz Dam has a capacity of 116 million cubic meters (m³) of water, but it tends to store much smaller amounts. In May 2018, there was news that it had achieved its “largest water pool of this century” as it approached 88 million m³ levels. Its water is mainly used to irrigate rice and is therefore usually consumed in large quantities during two specific seasons that coincide with the sowing of this crop.
“It was known that with the ‘dry season’ the volume of the dam would decrease; it’s what happens every year. Only this time it was faster,” says Michel, a Florida resident who made two trips to Muñoz to look for fish at the time. Workers at the PESCACAM provincial fishing company were overwhelmed with catching clarias, tench and cichlids that were dying from lack of oxygen. Part of the fish was lost due to improper transport and refrigeration.
Similar episodes were expected in other dams in Camagüey, which PESCACAM could hardly cope with. The lack of resources prevented them from exploiting this type of “fish harvest”, which occurs between February and April each year, the last months of the dry season. In a few weeks, the dams release hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water, which is only refilled by the rains from June to October.
The dilemma of water and rice
In 2020, 49.6 percent of “fresh water used in Cuba” was used for agricultural irrigation. It was around 2,771 million m³, 110 million m³ more than in 2016. To put these figures in perspective, it should be noted that in the same period between 460 and 507 million m³ was accounted for by private consumption and by sectors such as industry, construction and energy production does not exceed a total of 200 million m³. Only the statistics of the “other branches of the economy” (which also includes tourism) achieved figures worth mentioning compared to agriculture with expenditure of 1.637 billion m³ (29.3 percent of the total expenditure).
This distribution of consumption corresponds to international trends. To According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), most countries use between 60 and 80 percent of their water resources for the agricultural sector, particularly food production. In 2020, the latest year for which Cuba released definitive statistics, the “agriculture, livestock, forestry and fisheries” sector consumed 59.5 percent of the water provided by the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INRH); four-fifths went to irrigation.
What is remarkable about the case is that this amount did not translate into production increases or at least reached the levels recorded in the first half of the 2010s. Between 2016 and 2020, production of root vegetables, citrus fruits, and milk and beef fell by 25 percent; that of fruits 10 percent; and the pipeline resulting from the collapse of the Álvaro-Reinoso order times was reduced by another 5 percent.
It’s not the worst of results, however. The largest crop declines in recent years have been those of beans and rice, which shrank by around 50 percent between 2018 and 2020 reorganization further exacerbated the crisis.
The declining parabola of both cultures was prompted by the lack of pesticides, fertilizers and fuel. Rice yields fell 40 percent in 2020, from 4.38 to 2.62 tons per hectare (ha). Under the new circumstances, the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG) saw large-scale planting as the only alternative, also at the expense of high water consumption (between 1.5 and 2.0 billion m³ per year) without reporting higher yields.
“You can grow 26 hectares instead of 13 to compensate for the ‘product’ that you didn’t add to the rice in time, but in the end the total won’t be what it was before. Land and water treatment also cost; much more now. That’s why so many people have stopped growing rice or are planting less,” said Israel, a farmer in the Florida community.
The decisions of the Cuban state are guided by a logic that is difficult to understand. The money not used for domestic rice production is then spent on importing the grain at a higher price. Quote from Lázaro Díaz Rodríguez, Director of the Rice Technological Department at MINAG, in a June 2020 granny Newspaper translated into concrete numbers the reported savings from harvesting the grain on the island. While the international price for a ton was around $520, 319 were invested to plant them here. During the pandemic, a ton that cost $650 never fell below $550. To According to the FAO, the value in March was $600.
The price of not striving for higher yields is also ecological. In 2015, the Agricultural Technical Research Institute suggested Update of the agricultural irrigation regulations introduced by the INRH in 1999. The new scale reserved the highest allocations for rice, ahead only of those corresponding to taro. But in contrast to the fields planted with this tuber, a very small proportion of which have irrigation systems, practically all of Cuba’s rice fields are planted using the flood method. In spring, one hectare of crops grown in the western provinces—where evaporation is less and rainfall much higher—requires 10,415 cubic meters per hectare (m³/ha); and during the dry season 11,286.
The water consumption is still enormous, without the results coming close to what was achieved a few years ago. Experts have been warning for some time about the tendency to use extensionism to compensate for the lack of imported inputs. A study published in 2018, authored by Professor José Antonio Díaz Duque, of the José Antonio Echeverría Technological University of Havana (CUJAE), put a weighty figure as background: In 2004, agricultural production in Cuba was 33.8 million tons and 1,597 Billions m³ of water were used for irrigation. Four years later, water consumption had increased to 3.281 billion m³ and agricultural production was down by 10 million tons.
Eight of the “normally imported foods show the impossibility of their realization, at least because of the need for water,” said Díaz Duque. Therefore, he recommended the development of a “food security strategy similar to that of many countries characterized by limited availability of their water resources”. One of the main premises should be the reduction of water consumption.
“Expanding acreage isn’t the most appropriate strategy, but it’s a way to mitigate low yields,” said Vice President of the Republic Salvador Valdés Mesa counters in June 2020. His rationale avoids that expanding plantations will require more labor, more seed, and in many cases more irrigation.
“If the land cannot be properly leveled due to fuel shortages, more water will end up being used. Add to that the additional cost of seed and the combines that have to move more to mow the field. The savings that some think come from not using fuel or fertilizers end up being “eaten up” by the extra spending that needs to be made,” Israel explained.
To the limit
Cuba’s rice yields, even at their best, were nowhere near the world average in terms of water consumption, as noted by the FAO estimates between 1,000 and 3,000 liters per kilo of ready-to-eat grain. In 2018, the island consumed on average more than 5,000 liters per kilo in the agricultural production phase alone.
The decline in yield has deepened this difference, and there is not even an opportunity to expand the acreage. For a long time, the island’s water resources have been exploited to the limit of their potential. A good example is the river Cauto, which abandons 90 percent of its average flow (estimated at 63 cubic meters per second) in the 19 dams and nine stations constructed along its course.
In round numbers, about 1.3 billion m³ are preferred each year to the rice fields of Granma, the main producer of the grain in Cuba. 150 kilometers west, the San Pedro River reaches the sea with less than 15 percent of its water; the rest (260 million m³) remains in the reservoirs that feed the large plantations in southern Camagüey.
In 2016, the Climate Monitoring Group, affiliated with the Institute of Meteorology, estimated that each Cuban could use up to 1,214 m³ of water per year. In 1995 alone – with roughly the same population – the per capita number was over 5,000; By 2025, forecasts suggest that availability will definitely reach 1,000 m³, one of the lowest rates in Latin America and the Caribbean.
This data marks a trend that is as worrying as it is difficult to reverse due to the effects of climate change. Anyone who questions them need only go to some of the hundreds of dams in Cuba, many of which seem doomed to disappear at the end of the dry season. If more effective formulas for water consumption are not found, some will.