Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-CUBA: The First Seagulls Are Back over Havana Bay

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, May 28 2001 (IPS) - The appearance of a few pelicans and seagulls over the Havana Bay is a harbinger of better times for Cuba’s main seaport, whose filth has driven away the area’s once- abundant wildlife and even changed the taste of the fish.

María Josefa Rodés, an expert in environmental management who is a member of the government’s Havana Bay Task Force, told IPS she was confident that the bay was on its way to recovery, thanks to the clean-up work that began in the late 1990s. Her conviction has been borne out by the latest studies, and even more visibly, by the presence of seabirds.

However, the water around the port is still not fit for swimming, said Rodés, who underlined that the “red alert” was still on despite the gradual improvements.

Havana Bay has been ranked by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) among the ten most heavily-polluted bays in the world. Alejandro, a local resident, recalled that “sometimes I came out of the water all smeared with petroleum, and the fish even tasted different.

“I know what I’m talking about, because I’m 35, and I’ve been fishing here since I was eight,” explained the mechanic, who in spite of everything has never given up his favourite hobby.

Alejandro complained about the oil spills, and the fact that boats dumped their waste into the bay “right here, and nothing even happens to them.”

But, he added, “things are getting better now, and there are more controls.”

Alfredo Valle, a 60-year-old pensioner, said that in the 1950s, “you could catch any kind of fish” in the bay and swim there without any problem.

“But things changed, and the fish gradually disappeared – not just because of the oil, because I’ve seen feces floating in the water. I wouldn’t eat fish caught in the bay even if it was given to me for free,” said the retiree, who lives near Havana’s famous seaside avenue, the Malecon.

But Valle’s friend Raúl Ruiz, an old telephone company worker, said he didn’t stop fishing in the bay until three years ago. He added that no one in his family had any problem eating what he brought home after his long hours fishing along the Malecon.

Rodés pointed out, however, that Ruiz’s remarks about eating fish caught in Havana Bay simply reflected the widespread ignorance on environmental questions in this Caribbean island nation of 11 million, which she said must be overcome through education and awareness campaigns.

“A lot of work must be carried out in education on the environment, to protect people’s health, as well as to get them to participate in taking care of Havana Bay, which belongs to everyone,” Rodés told IPS.

Studies carried out in the 1980s show that at one point, a daily average of 100 tonnes of organic waste and 33 tonnes of hydrocarbons from various industries was dumped into the bay, which is 5.2 square kms in size and contains roughly 47 million cubic metres of water.

The worst sources of pollution were the Ñico López oil refinery, the city’s sewer pipes, freighters and cruise ships, as well as three rivers that empty into the bay.

But technical measures were adopted in the Ñico López refinery to curb its impact on the environment, and several other heavily polluting factories were either closed down or moved away, leading to a 475 ton – or 5.35 percent – reduction of the flow of contaminants into the bay last year with respect to 1999.

In addition, a water treatment plant built with financial aid from Italy will soon begin to clean up the water in the Luyanó river, one of the main culprits.

But experts are even more worried about the pollution caused by ships, pointing out that the area bordering the port is affected by at least one oil spill every year. In a particularly bad accident in 1999, 120 tonnes of oil were leaked into the sea.

The state-owned press announced last week that this year, Cuba would acquire state-of-the-art containment booms and oil skimmers for cleaning up spills.

A prevention programme will also go into effect, based on air patrols with an emphasis on areas of heavy sea traffic, like the Old Channel of Bahamas, through which around 5,000 tanker ships pass every year.

The currents and winds in that region tend to carry oil leaked in accidents or due to the carelessness of crews towards Cuba’s coasts, which makes such a plan essential, according to experts.

For the past few years, Cuba’s Empresa de Saneamiento Marítimo y Portuario has been working on cleaning up Havana Bay, as well as the port of Santiago de Cuba, 967 kms east of the capital.

The recent boom in Cuba’s tourist industry has brought another growing concern, due to the steady increase in the number of arrivals of passenger and cruise ships, which dump their waste in Cuba’s waters.

Due to the rise in cruise ship traffic, Cuba is getting ready to sign international accords aimed at preventing boats from dumping their untreated garbage and waste.

When it was set up in 1998, the government Task Force in charge of the clean-up, conservation and development of the Havana Bay was also given the task of approving all investment, construction and services projects in the area of the port, with the aim of protecting the environment.

The Task Force also decides on the measures necessary for controlling the dumping of waste and other contaminants, and designs financial and economic incentives for companies that join the conservation effort.

The first Havana Bay clean-up project dates back to 1886. The alarm was sounded once again in 1921, and the first ecological- sanitary study was carried out in 1939. In 1974, a local scientific researcher, Reglas Cañas Pérez, identified specific sources of pollution and suggested measures to improve the situation.

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