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CUBA: Food Aid for Victims of Worst Drought Since 1901

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Jun 20 2005 (IPS) - The World Food Programme (WFP) has launched an emergency food aid operation for 773,000 people affected by the ongoing drought in Cuba, WFP representative Rosa Inés Antolín told IPS.

The operation, which will involve a total of 3.7 million dollars in assistance for three months, could go into effect in July, Antolín noted.

The WFP will also be counting on support from donors, including the European Union (EU), Canada and Japan, to provide aid over subsequent months, she added.

The food aid operation will be carried out in coordination with the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation (MINVEC) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

"This project will complement the efforts undertaken by the government, which has already allotted extra food rations to the most vulnerable families in eastern Cuba," the region hardest hit by the drought, said Antolín.

The current drought began in 2003 and is one of the worst in Cuba’s history, leading to food shortages in the eastern provinces of Guantánamo, Granma, Santiago de Cuba, Las Tunas and Holguín, and the central province of Camagüey, 500 km east of Havana.

The WFP food aid operation will specifically target children under five years of age, pregnant women and the elderly, who will be provided with beans, rice and cooking oil.

The project will also encompass the distribution of containers to store the water that the government supplies to thousands of families with tanker trucks.

The inadequate rainfall has severely affected the cultivation of basic crops and stockbreeding, with serious repercussions on the availability of food in the entire eastern portion of this Caribbean island nation of 11.2 million.

The annual rainy season, which began in May, could benefit the large collective urban vegetable gardens. "Nevertheless, a lot of families lost their crops or were unable to plant because there was no water for irrigation. The population is now facing an especially difficult period, because there is no harvest this year," explained Antolín.

The WFP predicts that food insecurity will be particularly acute during the next few summer months, because of the losses suffered in the crops normally harvested in May.

The drought has left one out of every six Cubans without access to drinking water, which is why the Cuban government has adopted a series of measures to ensure the supply of water to the entire population, the WPF reported in a press release.

Cuban experts, who forecast that the lack of precipitation will continue, say this drought is the worst the country has seen since 1901, and note that the limited rainfall registered in May and June was not enough to notably improve the availability of water.

The country has 241 dams and reservoirs, with a total combined capacity of almost 8.8 billion cubic metres. Today, roughly half of them have fallen below their useful storage capacity, while 17 percent cannot be used because the water volume has reached the so-called "dead storage" level.

The heavy showers that fell in recent weeks brought some relief to several eastern provinces, but not enough to make a significant impact.

In Santiago de Cuba, over 800 km east of Havana, the recent precipitation raised the level of the province’s reservoirs from 27 to 36 percent of their total capacity, which meant that more water could be distributed to the population.

An estimated 1.4 million people currently rely on tanker trucks for access to water, particularly in the provinces of Camagüey, Las Tunas and Holguín.

Because of this, the new WPF project will include the supply of replacement parts for these trucks, some of which are in extremely poor condition, said Antolín.

Between June and November 2004, the agency provided emergency food aid to 140,000 children under five years of age in the eastern provinces most severely affected by the drought, namely Las Tunas, Holguín and Camagüey.

In 2004, the government of socialist President Fidel Castro invested almost 20 million dollars in hydraulic infrastructure projects, aimed at seeking long-term solutions to a problem that could grow even worse in the future.

According to official estimates, the losses caused by the drought in 2004 totalled 835 million dollars, which represents 2.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Figures from the National Water Resources Institute and the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment indicate that before the current prolonged drought, Cuba had a water availability level of 1,204 cubic metres per capita, placing it among the countries classified as facing "water stress".

According to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation, water is regarded as a potentially serious constraint, and a major problem in drought years, at levels of water availability less than 2000 cubic metres per capita.

The provinces suffering the most critical water stress are Holguín and Las Tunas, with water availability levels of 505 and 613 cubic metres per capita respectively, followed by Santiago de Cuba, with 665, and Guantánamo, located in the easternmost tip of Cuba, with 677 cubic metres per capita.

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