SAN JUAN, P.R. – It seems like Puerto Rico can’t catch a break – from its debt-burdened economy to losing a dramatic portion of its population to the mainland U.S. – and now it's facing a challenge with potentially catastrophic consequences.
The island is suffering from one of the worst droughts in its history, and the government has begun rationing water on the heavily populated eastern side of the country, including many of the neighborhoods in San Juan.
“This is the strictest rationing we’ve ever had,” Alberto Lázaro, the executive president of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, or PRASA, told the New York Times. “It’s been raining, though the showers that should drop water in the east coast are dropping the water in the west coast.”
For 48 hours the water is turned off and then comes back on for a day, during which 160,000 residents and businesses struggle to collect as much water as possible.
Residents have buckets and tubs on every surface of their homes to try to make it through the dry spells.
Carli Davila, 39, told the Times that he washes his hands in the tank of his toilet, stores up water in pots and pans next to his kitchen sink to do the dishes and keeps his fridge full of pitchers of water.
“It’s like Cuba," he told the paper. "When you are missing stuff, when you have shortages, you definitely move toward the creative side.”
The Pacific heat pattern called El Niño has spread throughout the Caribbean affecting islands such as Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The media coverage on droughts however have been primarily focused on California and the western U.S.
Many of the reservoirs on the island have come within 30 days or less of running out.
The drought has cost PRASA up to $15 million a month, with its customers less able to pay and operating costs soaring. According to the Times, the water authority already has piled up a $5 billion debt.
The extremely dry conditions are also hitting the agricultural segment of the economy. It's harder for ranchers to find grass to feed their cattle, farmers along the southern coast have already postponed planting their usual crops for this time of year.
“We are optimistic this will pass sooner rather than later,” PRASA's Lázaro said. “We are getting into the season when we get tropical waves every two, three or four days.”
As for a solution, for a cash-strapped Puerto Rico, the options are severely limited. The only plausible option right now is rain—and a lot of it.