Cubans find preparing for climate change hard, expensive and essential
Ines Perez, special to E&E
ClimateWire: Monday, June 16, 2014
HAVANA -- The Malecon stretches for 5 miles along the coast of Havana,
flanked by a line of old, pastel-colored buildings. Despite its
time-worn look, this emblematic seaside esplanade buzzes with activity,
with fishermen, kids, tourists and a steady stream of 1950s-era
Chevrolets, Buicks and Plymouths flowing through it.
During the last couple of years, the area has undergone sporadic
renovation in the hopes of bringing it back to its former glory, but now
there is a bigger change being put in place: No more residential
development will be allowed on the oceanfront.
This decision, and many others like it, can be traced back to the
impacts of Hurricane Wilma in October 2005. While the hurricane never
made landfall, its strong waves pounded the Malecon sea wall and flooded
the streets to unprecedented levels.
The heavy damage -- estimated at around 704.2 million Cuban pesos ($26.6
million) -- and the prolonged disruption of basic public services, was a
wake-up call. It prompted a series of actions that would eventually
change the country's approach to climate change.
"With Wilma, we began to take our first steps in calculating the
economic damages to the city caused by such an event," said Odalys
Goicochea Cardoso, environment director at the Ministry of Science,
Technology and Environment (CITMA). "It also brought up how vulnerable
we are and how we needed to reflect this somehow."
Cuba has a long history of climate adaptation measures, even if they
weren't originally conceived as such.
For one, the country has a highly organized disaster prevention and
management system, called Civil Defense, designed to protect lives in
case of extreme hazards such as hurricanes.
The system was established after Hurricane Flora hit the Caribbean in
1963, leaving over 7,000 people dead in Haiti and Cuba. Now, the island
(population 11,241,161 as of the last official census in 2010)
consistently experiences the lowest death tolls during hurricane season
in the region.
The country has also invested in education over many decades to help
people deal with natural disasters. The emphasis, particularly after the
Cuban Revolution, helped Cuban experts study and assess the impacts of
Building reservoirs and doubling forests
Between 1967 and 1990, Cuba built a significant number of reservoirs,
micro-dams and distribution channels to deal with the country's chronic
water shortages. It also planted more trees, bringing its forest
coverage up from 14 percent in 1959 to 29 percent by 2015.
According to a report by Oxfam, in 1991, before there was an
international commitment to tackle the causes of climate change, Cuba
created the National Commission on Climate Change to study the different
impacts of the phenomenon.
But as weather grew more extreme, the government realized it couldn't
rely on disaster management alone. In 2005, right after Wilma broke
havoc in Havana, Cuba's Environment Agency took on the task of mapping
out the hazards, vulnerabilities and risks for the entire country.
It took eight years to evaluate every possible scenario, break it down
by province and municipality, and come up with a series of recommendations.
The resulting study on the "Impact of Climate Change and Adaptation
Measures in Cuba," published last year, found that average maximum
temperatures in the country had increased by 0.9 degree Celsius since
the second half of last century. More importantly, the average minimum
temperature rose by 1.9 degrees Celsius.
During the same period, average rainfall dropped by 10 percent. The
country experienced longer episodes of severe drought in the summer,
combined with an increase in the frequency of severe rainfall events in
Since 2001, Cuba has been hit by a record number of eight intense
hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5) in the same decade. Between 2005 and
2012 alone, the damages caused by tropical hurricanes -- in terms of
pre-emptive measures, replacement housing, infrastructure, agriculture
and loss of public services -- reached almost 21 billion Cuban pesos
($792.5 million), according to the National Bureau of Statistics and
The forecast grows more troublesome
The 2008 hurricane season was particularly difficult, with three major
hurricanes -- Gustav, Ike and Paloma -- sweeping through the country,
for a total loss of 9.7 billion Cuban pesos ($366 million).
Approximately 643,806 homes were damaged, and agricultural and livestock
costs shot up to 3.6 billion Cuban pesos ($135.8 million).
Most recently, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused widespread damage,
particularly to Santiago de Cuba. Throughout the province, 263,250 homes
were affected, electricity and water services were knocked out, and most
of the trees in the city were ripped off their roots, generating almost
7 billion Cuban pesos in damages ($264.2 million). At least 11 people
Based on the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC), Cuba will face further warming, more frequent extreme
weather events and ocean acidification. "Island nations have no rear
guard. When the sea rises, it rises all over, and the only thing you can
do is move to the center and up," said Arnaldo Álvarez Brito, lead
investigator at the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI).
In 2010, Cuba finished its first national evaluation of the effects of
sea-level rise. According to Álvarez, it showed the sea was rising off
the Cuban shores at approximately 2 millimeters per year. At this rate,
the country was set to lose about 3 percent of its land by 2050, and 5
percent by 2100.
Back then, the climate scenario suggested sea level would rise by 85
centimeters by the end of the century. However, the latest IPCC report
predicted a startling change. "In February of this year, I was informed
that the new scenario for sea-level rise by 2100, in Cuba, is 1.5 meters
-- almost twice the one we used four years ago -- because now it takes
into account the effects of rising temperatures over the poles," Álvarez
For a long, narrow island such as Cuba -- with over 3,000 miles of
coasts, and over 10 percent of its population living in low-lying areas
along the coastline -- a rise of 1.5 meters in sea level is a "big
problem," he added.
Combatting coastal sprawl
This is where the Hazards, Vulnerabilities and Risk studies, completed
in 2013, come into play. Based on these results, the government has been
able to flag the most vulnerable areas and focus its adaptation efforts
and resources accordingly.
"They set a sort of base line in terms of what to expect with climate
change, what areas are at risk of becoming submerged due to sea-level
rise, and based on that, plan the development of the country," Goicochea
In the case of the Malecon of Havana, for example, it was determined
that the area was particularly vulnerable to cold fronts and seawater
intrusion, and had serious drainage issues. As a result, its zoning was
modified. "Obviously, a home in the Malecon must be very pretty, and
it's much coveted, but it wasn't viable," she said.
Other initiatives include the promotion of agricultural systems more
resilient to the expected effects of climate change, the establishment
of an annual water quota by institution and source, maintaining a
forestry policy that increases forest coverage, and construction
projects to prevent seawater intrusion.
But it hasn't been easy. According to Goicochea, the thing about
environmental investments is that there are no "tangible" returns,
making them a hard sell to most people. "Nobody takes into account the
avoided costs," she added.
This became particularly evident a couple of years ago, when the
government began executing a drastic program to rehabilitate the coastal
area. Some of the problems, it found, it had caused. During the
so-called "Special Period" -- a period of economic crisis brought upon
by the dissolution of the Soviet Union -- the country experienced a
sprawl of homes and other infrastructure on the coast, which has led to
the significant deterioration of its shores.
In 2000, the authorities issued a coastal protection law, which
prohibited building over dunes and established a minimum distance of 130
feet from the coast. Yet it wasn't until 2011 and 2012 that the
government began to enforce the requirements.
Starting with the iconic beaches in Varadero, inspectors from the Office
of Environmental Regulation and Nuclear Security set out to penalize
violations and schedule the necessary demolitions. The idea was to
salvage the beach ecosystem and ensure the sustainability of tourism,
which represents a $2.6 billion industry.
Demolishing buildings and houses
According to official numbers, in 2012, authorities demolished 287
state-owned properties, such as hotels and retreats, and 198 illegal
While the law stipulates that anything built before 2000 is technically
"legal," all the activity has put local communities on edge, and not
without reason. In Varadero, for example, the government has a list of
families that will eventually be relocated to "safer" areas.
The second part of the initiative involves the recovery and restoration
of the "natural barriers" in the area, whether by rebuilding dunes,
protecting the coral reefs or replenishing mangroves.
"As an element of physical defense of the coastal zone, we have the
mangroves," said Gisela Alonso Dominguez, president of the Environment
Agency, which coordinates all climate change-related work. Mangroves act
as a natural barrier, protecting the coast from erosion and seawater
intrusion. They also help cushion the impact of storm surge and waves.
The government not only has made sure the mangroves are protected, but
also has developed a new "ecotechnology" to successfully reforest
mangroves where needed.
While these measures won't stop the sea from rising on Cuban shores,
officials agree they'll buy the country more time to come up with a
"Right now, all we can aspire to is to have this natural protection,"
Alonso said. "So we are working on it," she added. The program is
currently being executed in the northern keys, and later on it will
follow in Holguín.
According to Oxfam, adaptation, mitigation and disaster risk reduction
and response in Cuba are the result of a "long road travelled." Climate
change has been deemed a political priority at all levels, the report
"There's a lot of people doing this line of work, because you can't wait
to have the problem to look for a solution," Álvarez said.
National and local institutions, such as the Meteorology Institute, the
Environment Agency, the Oceanology Institute and the Geography
Institute, are working together to implement their adaptation plans
before it's too late.
"A friend of mine has a saying: 'The longer we take, the more vulnerable
we'll become,' and that's what happens," Álvarez said. "The more you
delay finding adaptation measures, the more vulnerable you'll be. You'll
have less time, you'll have to spend more money, money will be scarce,
and the impact will be bigger," he said.
Source: ADAPTATION: Cubans find preparing for climate change hard,
expensive and essential -- Monday, June 16, 2014 -- www.eenews.net -