Is Puerto Rico Rationing Water? The Island Faces A Tough Choice

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Even though a full five months have passed since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, there are still thousands of residents without power. And now, due to shrinking water supplies on the western side of the island, many Puerto Ricans are facing the possibility of water rationing.

CBS News correspondent David Begnaud reports that the water level in Guajataca Lake has been dwindling to the point there may not be "sufficient production" to adequately service the residents on the western side of Puerto Rico that depend on water from its reserves. According to Begnaud, a "final decision" on whether or not to begin rationing is supposed to be coming early next week.

If authorities do determine that water rationing is necessary, they could implement changes as early as next Friday. Puerto Ricans living in the five affected municipalities would have running water in their homes every third day. That means a household might get a week's worth of access to indoor running water only on Monday and Thursday, for instance.

But it's not just Puerto Rico's western residents that face severe difficulties in securing energy basics that are usually taken for granted. Hundreds of thousands of residents in Puerto Rico's northern cities are still dealing with regular energy blackouts, some of which can last for days at a time.

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Part of the issue stems from the incredible danger involved in repairing power lines across a mountainous region like Puerto Rico. As Begnaud reports, electrical repairs must be done while workers hang out of helicopters. If that sounds risky, that's because it is.

Puerto Rico's infrastructure had already been neglected into a state of serious disrepair when Hurricane Maria hit. In the early days after the storm passed, many roads were so badly damaged, they were simply impassable. The estimated price tag for fixing Puerto Rico's roads currently sits at $240 million, minimum.

These circumstances mean it's taking "agonizingly long" for Puerto Rico to return to any semblance of normal. As Begnaud relates, the northern part of the island went without power for most of Thursday.

And a lack of electricity is a serious risk not just to Puerto Rico's economy, but more immediately to the lives and well-being of its several million residents. No power means the water stops running, the air conditioning stops working, and buckets of ice have to stand in for standard refrigeration.

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And though no exact numbers are yet known, it is believed that at least 1,000 Puerto Ricans have died as a result of Hurricane Maria. The vast majority of those deaths occurred after the storm had passed, many due to a lack of clean water and electricity.

Mattathias Schwartz details some of the fatal consequences of the botched response to Puerto Rico in an expose entitled "Maria's Bodies" for New York magazine. Schwartz notes that while the government has not released an official number of victims, data from previous power outages suggests that fatalities meaningfully increase when electricity is shut down. He cites a five-year study of regular power outages in Ghana that found an absence of electricity correlated with a 43 percent increase in mortality rates.

Similar dangers are present for people cut off from a sanitary water supply. People who are desperate will sometimes seek to secure water from unsafe sources — indeed, there are already documented cases of this happening in Puerto Rico.

And it can be prohibitively expensive for the economically disadvantaged to supplement a government water ration with store-bought bottled water. Outside of donations, it's unclear as of now what options Puerto Rican residents living under a water ration would have to ensure adequate drinking water on the days their water supply is shut off.