Demand for Bottled Water in Puerto Rico Quadruples After Hurricane Maria
SAN JUAN – Don Miguel gets up early in the mornings. He usually does so to begin his usual day-to-day errands, go to medical appointments, visit his daughter or just have coffee with old friends at the bakery.
Today, his mission was different: To get bottled water for his home, and if possible, bring a box to his daughter so his grandchildren would have something. At other times this would be no problem, but during these post-Hurricane Maria days, getting bottled water is quite an adventure.
“I went to Costco and after standing in line for an hour, they announced they had run out [of water],” he told Caribbean Business, resigned, like many others in that one should not give up because somewhere, they will find something. This situation happens time and again in most of establishments and supermarkets on the island after Maria overturned islanders’ daily lives more than a month ago.
For Isamarie Castrodad, spokesperson for Supermercados Pueblo, it is not that there is a shortage of the product, but the demand is so extraordinary that as soon as they place the merchandise on the shelves, customers whisk them away.
“At the moment it is the most sought-after product,” said Castrodad, pointing out that the company has increased the purchase of bottled water by 376% compared with the amount sold in the first weeks of October 2016.
The reasons for this demand are several, she explained.
“First, there are many people who previously did not buy the product and now because of the situation, they are looking for it, but also with a perception of scarcity, some of the existing supplies are hoarded and that creates an artificial shortage. It’s the same thing that happened with gasoline a few weeks ago,” she said.
In addition, supplies that are available locally have to be divided between businesses and the aid that is delivered to hurricane victims. Therefore, many businesses have opted to import bottled water. The alternative, however, has its problems, too.
Port of Jacksonville bottleneck
“In Jacksonville, the logistics have been overturned as well. Drivers have raised the fees to take goods to the dock and the shipping lines are not enough because they have to give priority to the aid as well as make room for the ordinary cargo of supermarkets,” said Eduardo Marxuach, president of Supermarkets Econo.
“At the moment, people are not buying water just to drink, but also for other uses that leads to increased demand––four times higher than usual,” he added.
Mayreg Rodríguez, spokesperson for Supermercados Selectos, explained that it must be taken into account that supplies had been affected first after Hurricane Irma, and then with Maria, local supply companies sustained damages to their infrastructure that caused the supply to be delayed in the market.
“Cargo from Jacksonville is slower because they are using the same containers and ships that used to be used for local freight, but it’s not that there is a shortage, it’s that the products take a little longer to arrive,” Rodríguez said. Nevertheless, she said they are working so that consumers do not lack what they need.
Local production not enough
Meanwhile, the president of Club Caribe Distillers (CCD), producers of Dasani and Nikini bottled water, Alberto de La Cruz explained that his plant continues to operate 24 hours a day using diesel-run emergency generators.
During a visit to the CCD plant in Cidra, Caribbean Business was able to verify that the plant facilities are in good condition and remain operational despite the challenges they continue to face on a daily basis.
As the only plant of its kind to operate in Puerto Rico at this time, due to its ability to produce its own carbon dioxide (CO2), CCD assumed responsibility for supplying the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“We made a contract with FEMA whereby we supply them; they come and pick it up here. They pick up around 17 containers a day, ” said the businessman, while explaining how the selection process of the federal agency chose them as suppliers in their work to help communities affected by the hurricane.
“We produce enough for normal demand, but it is getting difficult to supply [water] in emergencies such as these ones. We are seeing that people are using bottled water for everything, and that is the reason why demand grows and availability decreases. Before, people used to go to the oasis, but now they are not using them,” said De La Cruz.
The businessman said the sale of bottled water for his company normally constitutes 20% of its total sales. The emergency has increased this number to 60%. However, this increase has proven to be a challenge for the company, which is working at full steam to supply the great demand for water in Puerto Rico.
In search of government help
Marxuach said that last week, a group comprising industry representatives, shipping companies and the local government was created to look for alternatives to the pitfalls faced. He argued that this experience should lead organizations and the government to review the problems that have arisen to prevent it from recurring in the event of a new emergency.
“Usually there is always enough inventory here, but since there is a tax on the existing inventory, most stores keep their supplies to a minimum. In cases like this, that has proven to be a problem to keep the supply chain healthy, “he said.
Likewise, there is a need to begin to keep inventories higher than normal, especially of products that are known as basic necessity items, so that when emergencies such as this one arise, over-reliance on open ports or on arriving planes to provide essential supplies to the people is avoided.
– Reporter Agustín Criollo Oquero contributed to this story.