GUAYANILLA, PUERTO RICO — Pacing across the cracked earth of his family’s land as hot, dry winds shook the surrounding trees, 33-year-old Roberto Fernandez described how two years of severe drought has devastated the island.
“Last year, the pastures weren’t getting rain and weren’t able to regrow, and my livestock started getting hungry and sick,” he said. “When the animals don’t have enough food, it takes a toll on their defense system, and the ticks took hold and started spreading disease. There were carcasses of adult cows everywhere. That’s when I understood the pretty shocking reality of the drought.”
Since the usual tropical rains fizzled out in February, the USDA has declared more than a quarter of Puerto Rico a disaster area. In July, usually one of the wettest months, the island got just 4 centimeters of rain. Now, 2.8 million residents live in a part of the country suffering either an “extreme” or “severe” drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
As the commonwealth’s reservoirs drop to their lowest levels in decades, the government has declared a state of emergency, and implemented strict rationing. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans now have had tap water only every third day, and that tightened this past weekend, giving families water only two days a week.
“It’s been water for one day, then no water for two days,” explained Fernandez. “In the one day you have water, you fill your buckets.”
Government officials are telling residents that now is “not the time” to wash their cars, fill private swimming pools, or hose down their sidewalks and patios. Luis F. Cruz Batista, Director of Puerto Rico’s Office of Management and Budget, told local press: “The rationing affects the rich, the middle class and the poor; it affects children, adults and seniors.”
But the rationing has not hit everyone equally. As poor islanders fill up buckets and bathtubs on the few days they have water, the pools, fountains, and showers of the coastline’s hotels and resorts remain untouched.
“The most affected residents have been those with the fewest resources,” San Juan academic and activist Jose Rivera told ThinkProgress. “But in the hotels and the majority of condominiums, like the one I live in, the rationing either isn’t being done at all, or they’re only partially implementing it. So far, the population has remained calm, but I expect this inequality of sacrifices to eventually provoke protests.”
Rivera added that when public schools reconvene this month, the water rationing will disrupt class schedules and the school breakfast and lunch programs. This will especially harm more than half of Puerto Rican children living in poverty.
For Fernandez, the water rationing policy is a symbol of deeper problem. “I see it as such as parallel of government policy in general,” he said. “The government puts more value into those from abroad than they are concerned about the local situation and the well-being of the public.”
A particularly harsh El Niño that began in March — a recurring weather phenomenon characterized by warm ocean temperatures — is fueling Puerto Rico’s drought, and shows no signs of letting up. Some studies indicate that climate change caused by increased carbon pollution in the earth’s atmosphere can increase the frequency and severity of El Niño events. Scientists have noted that Puerto Rico and its Caribbean neighbors are in one of the most vulnerable regions in the world when it comes to climate change.
The drought comes at a time when the Puerto Rican government is least able to cope with it. Facing a massive $73 billion debt crisis that some officials call “unpayable,” the commonwealth went into default at the beginning of August by missing a major loan payment to its bondholders.
With the state government crippled by debt, the federal government is extending low-interest emergency loans to farmers hurt by the drought, and setting up desalination plants to help prevent Puerto Rico’s reservoirs from completely drying up.
The fiscal crisis and the drought are intertwined in another way: for decades Puerto Rico has put off spending money on fixing and strengthening its infrastructure, including water reservoirs and aqueducts, so much of the little water left is being lost due to cracks and leaks.
For now, residents have to get creative.
In the cities, those hit by the rationing have bought or made cisterns for their homes to store up water, and have rigged up grey-water systems to reuse shower water for other purposes.
Out in the countryside, farmers like Fernandez are trying their best to use as little water as possible, to prevent the underground aquifers from running dry.
“What comes out my kitchen sink goes right back into the earth and waters my plants. My shower is the same. And I don’t have a flushing toilet, I have a composting toilet,” he told ThinkProgress. “I’m only using one one-hundredth of my well’s capacity, and what little water I do use for my plants gets recycled back into the land, into the aquifer itself.”
Tucked amid an overgrown patch of his farm, a solar powered pump draws water from the ground and pumps it uphill to where Fernandez has planted fields of papaya, eggplant, tomatoes, and leafy greens. A drip irrigation system delivers water directly to the roots, preventing evaporation.
Thanks to these measures, Fernandez’ farm is on track to survive the drought. But his fellow small farmers have not been so lucky, and their crop and livestock losses hurt both the morale and the bottom line of the local economy. “Production has dwindled drastically,” he said. “We’re really deep into the problem now. And when I feel that the movement is suffering, I suffer as well.”