Talking Water in Cuba
Talking Water in Cuba
Jacqueline Gilbert (left) and her UNH mentor, Professor Robin Sheriff (right). Photo by Perry Smith Photography.
Imagine having access to running water only one day per month. On that day, you’d fill up every bucket you have. For the next month, you’d carefully strategize about how to use that precious resource. Cleaning the house, doing the dishes, washing clothes, bathing — each must be consciously planned.
Water scarcity is a reality in many parts of the world. It’s been a problem in Cuba for centuries, but, in recent decades, droughts have been more frequent and long lasting. In the capital Havana, residents have water one day on, one day off; but, in places like Santiago, they might have seven, 20 or even 30 days off. That’s according to Jacqueline Gilbert, a senior who spent the summer in Cuba studying water, thanks to funding from the UNH Hamel Center’s International Research Opportunities Program (IROP).
“Water scarcity is the most important issue that our world faces,” says Gilbert. “It causes violent political uprisings around the world. It makes conflicts that already exist much worse, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's going to be one of the biggest problems we face in the world. If we don't have water, we don't have life.”
This anthropology and international affairs major wants to be part of the solution. She’d already done research on small water collectives in Bolivia and learned about the attempts at water privatization, an increasing and controversial trend. The “water wars” that ensued — citizen uprisings against private control — convinced her that water is a public resource and basic human right. She wondered how water is managed in a socialist economy like Cuba’s.
For Gilbert, part of the allure of Cuba was its forbidden nature — a country closed to Americans for over half a century. She knew that many Americans imagined a magical island of rum and cigars, like the Las Vegas it was before the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power. But the draw for her, she says, was having the opportunity to see first-hand a country in the midst of great change, as Cuba has been since the normalization of relations with the U.S.
Gilbert worked with UNH faculty mentor Robin Sheriff, associate professor of anthropology, to craft a research plan for Cuba and apply for the IROP.
Describing herself as a people person and talker, Gilbert says her gift of gab was criticized by some teachers in her younger years. It shook her confidence as a student. But not anymore. One of the keys to her success is her ability to talk to anyone anywhere: networking. For the Cuba trip, it started with a chat with UNH associate professor of history Julia Rodriguez, whose father is Cuban. Rodriguez connected Gilbert with her second cousin, a prominent Cuban journalist, who served as Gilbert’s foreign mentor. Another lead from Rodriguez got her a visa sponsorship from a highly respected Cuban environmental historian.
But it was on the ground in Cuba where her social skills proved most valuable. She talked her way into the offices of hydrologists, geologists, engineers, journalists, professors, government officials — anyone who knew anything about water. She name-dropped. She followed up on leads. She was tireless. Other researchers she met were amazed at who she was gaining access to and what she was learning.
Photo by Perry Smith Photography.
She spent her days trying to figure out the bus system, grabbing the standard plate of rice, beans and pork along the way. She studied at the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez, a research library, and crisscrossed Havana conducting interviews with her tiny mp3 recorder. She met a lot of ordinary Cubans, using that gift of gab to learn about how they use and think about water. She made friends. She went out to dinner. She danced salsa (though not very well, she says). Cuba is not the Las Vegas people imagine. It’s a poor country. But she found magic in the warmth and generosity of its people.
Back at UNH, Sheriff supported Gilbert intellectually and emotionally throughout the project. They had regular check-ins to be sure she was safe. Students have been known to be detained in Cuba, though Gilbert doesn’t think this is still happening.
“One thing I love about Jackie,” Sheriff says, “is that she doesn’t treat communication like it’s a Twitter feed. Her emails from Cuba were detailed and full of local sights and sounds, full of atmosphere. I especially enjoyed hearing about the people she met who invited her home and showed her how they lived. Jackie is blazing a path for what I hope will be a more robust future relationship between UNH and Cuba, one that includes friendship as well as an exchange of ideas. We mostly hear about problems in Cuba and we need to learn more about what they do right, such as the provision of education and health care.”
And what did Gilbert learn through her efforts? Well, she still has a lot of data to sift through, but the experience has taught her just how complicated managing water can be in any type of economy. The situation in Cuba is particularly complex because of the decaying infrastructure, such as the aqueducts serving Havana, which leak at least 60 percent of their water. In addition, inequities that existed before the revolution continue to structure unequal access to water. For example, some people own cisterns and can store plenty of water while others do not. Gilbert was particularly interested in the strategies people use to cope with limited water access, such as washing the floor or flushing the toilet with the same water they use to rinse their rice. She also observed a tendency among those with better storage infrastructure to waste water, although the Cuban government educates the public about water scarcity and drought.
Gilbert is now back at UNH, heading toward a December graduation, but she wants to continue her research on water. Not surprisingly, she made connections in Cuba she’s hoping will lead to graduate work in the field.
To her fellow UNH students, she can’t recommend study abroad highly enough. It made her more confident and resilient, she says. It opened up a world of opportunities to which she just wouldn’t have had access otherwise. While abroad, she suggests meeting as many people as possible and following up on offers, such as invitations to come back for visits.
“People are so concerned about not doing anything too out-of-the-box, not pushing themselves or others too hard,” says Gilbert, “but we need to take these opportunities as they come and make the most out of them because that’s how we’ll succeed.”