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How Puerto Rico is coping with the worst drought in decades

December 29, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
The tropical island of Puerto Rico has been scrambling for a precious resource: clean, fresh water. Puerto Ricans have faced the worst drought in more than 20 years and the most stringent water rationing ever imposed. Special correspondent Chris Bury reports.

GWEN IFILL: For the entire summer of 2015, the residents of Puerto Rico lived under drought conditions. Water was rationed, and, in some towns, it was only available in public places.

As special correspondent Chris Bury reports, the rains have returned, but the island’s recession and debt crisis remain a burden on the water infrastructure.

CHRIS BURY: The remnants of Hurricane Danny and Tropical Storm Erika that drenched Puerto Rico in late summer were, in fact, a great relief for this tropical island 3,500 square miles surrounded by the blue Caribbean.

In a new era of greatly reduced rainfall and extended dry spells, the most precious commodity these days is water, clean, fresh water. But for nearly five months in the summer and early fall, the most populous parts of the country depended on 1,600 gallon tanks of water like this. At one point, more than 100 of these tanks helped Puerto Ricans cope with the worst drought in more than 20 years.

Near San Juan, Juliana Chiclana was filling up water jugs for a household that includes eight grandchildren.

JULIANA CHICLANA, Puerto Rican Resident (through interpreter): One is emotionally affected by the drought itself, which, at least for me, I have never experienced a drought this big.

CHRIS BURY: In this town, the tap water was on for 24 hours, then off for 72 hours. And so families had to load up with enough to get through three days without tap water at home.

JULIANA CHICLANA (through interpreter): In a way, I’m grateful that it’s three, because they had announced that it was going to be five days.

CHRIS BURY: The rationing, in force from mid-May until September, was the most stringent ever imposed. Just outside San Juan, the Torres family lived for months with those restrictions.

So, we have the kitchen without water?

DEHUEL TORRES, Puerto Rican Resident: That’s it.

CHRIS BURY: On the day we visited, water rationing was in effect for the entire neighborhood. Here, they could turn on the taps every other day.

What happens if you try and turn on the water?

DEHUEL TORRES: Well, if you turn on the water, we have no water at this point. We are in a drought, right now rationing. We have 24 hours previous — we got one day with water, another day with no water.

CHRIS BURY: Twenty-four hours on, 24 hours off?

DEHUEL TORRES: Twenty-four hours on, 24 hours off.

CHRIS BURY: So, like thousands of others here, Dehuel and his wife, Jessica, had to cope creatively. In the bathrooms, he installed 22-gallon tanks for cleaning and hygiene.

DEHUEL TORRES: Just to use our toilet in a regular basis.

CHRIS BURY: And to bathe, they relied on this small camp shower. Dehuel filled it from a big barrel that sits outside in the sun to keep the water warm, then hung it up in the bathroom, where the showers, by necessity, were brief.

DEHUEL TORRES: There you go. We got our shower.

CHRIS BURY: And in the kitchen, some more improvisation. Dehuel attached a faucet to this big bucket. That’s how they saved enough water to do the dishes on those days when the tap ran dry.

JESSICA TORRES, Puerto Rican Resident: We have to turn it off. Then clean each cup or dish one by one to save water, then turn it up to rinse it.

CHRIS BURY: For the Torres family, the drought not only meant a dramatic change in their daily lives. It’s cost them more money, too.

JESSICA TORRES: It’s more expensive. We may have to buy another container to supply our needs, so that’s another expense that we have to look into it.

CHRIS BURY: In much of Puerto Rico, the drought created a cottage industry of coping. Hardware stores hawked buckets with faucets already bolted on. This sign said, “Don’t stay soapy.”

Along highways, vendors sold the bucket contraptions, too, $15 apiece. And on rooftops everywhere, plastic cisterns stored extra water to ride out the rationing.

For many businesses, such as this seafood restaurant and bar, the drought made life more difficult and more expensive. Employees washed dishes the old-fashioned way. Plastic cups replaced glass ones and the restaurant relied on delivered ice.

LUIS TORRES: Like you see, it’s brand-new.

CHRIS BURY: Outside, manager Luis Torres showed us two new 600-gallon cisterns that stored water for the days when it wasn’t available.

How important is water to your business?

LUIS TORRES: We can’t run if we don’t have water. If we want to open the doors, we have to have water.

CHRIS BURY: Many of the island’s tourist resorts were relatively unaffected, because their water flows from a remote aqueduct, not local reservoirs.

But the lack of water took its toll on agriculture. The drought dried up the pastures where cattle typically graze. In much of the country, milk production fell. This farm grows plantains, mangoes, avocados and other fruit.

But farmer Daniel Cadenas says the dry weather stunted their growth.

DANIEL CADENAS, Farmer: There might be as many fruit maybe, but they tend to be smaller. And then a lot of things can die. Let’s say, the platanos, usually, they definitely need water.

JOSE MOLINELLI-FREYTES, University of Puerto Rico: These two sections are the ones that are very dry.

CHRIS BURY: Jose Molinelli-Freytes, a professor of environmental science at the University of Puerto Rico, blamed a confluence of factors, including El Nino, the unusually warm currents in the Pacific that affect weather globally and reduce precipitation in the Caribbean.

Another factor, hot dust from the Sahara Desert that dissipates storm clouds before they reach Puerto Rico, all part of a changing climate.

JOSE MOLINELLI-FREYTES: The models predict, for example, that, for the Caribbean, we’re going to have 20 percent reduction in rainfall by the middle of the century. And it will be intensifying.

CHRIS BURY: And that, he says, doesn’t bode well for Puerto Rico’s aging and crumbling water system, that the dams need maintenance, that the reservoirs have too much silt and sediment, reducing their capacity, and that old water pipes routinely springs leaks, such as this one bubbling up on a city street.

JOSE MOLINELLI-FREYTES: When it is pumped through the distribution system, more than half of the water is lost due to aging infrastructure and leaking.

CHRIS BURY: More than half?


CHRIS BURY: But Puerto Rico, suffering from a recession and deep in debt, is too starved for cash to even partially plug the leaks. And the rationing drained revenue from the island’s water utility, which is headed by Alberto Lazaro.

ALBERTO LAZARO, Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority: It’s costing us quite a bit. It’s costing us about $12 million per month. That cost is mostly income or revenues that are not being received, because, if we are shutting off services for two days at a time, then people are going to use less water.

CHRIS BURY: Dehuel and Jessica Torres told us the drought was another burden to shoulder in a difficult economy, one more reason they have thought about leaving for the mainland United States.

JESSICA TORRES: With this situation of uncertainty that we’re experiencing right now, the drought, the government not actually helping us, it creates a lot of uncertainty in the people. And people might say they have the option. We’re not in another country. We have the option. We’re American citizens.

CHRIS BURY: Even the scientist who studies the climate here was counting on nature to intervene.

Is Puerto Rico praying for a good hurricane?

JOSE MOLINELLI-FREYTES: I will say that a good hurricane that pass by and brings a lot of rain, that will be a blessing, if that occurs.

CHRIS BURY: The late summer storms did dump enough rain on Puerto Rico so that the water authority eventually ended the rationing. But now the dry season has begun, and Puerto Rico will need more rain next year to prevent another drought that will send the residents of this tropical island scrambling for that most precious commodity: clean, fresh water.

I’m Chris Bury for PBS NewsHour in Carolina, Puerto Rico.