Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-CUBA: Fish Return to Havana Bay

Patricia Grogg* - Tierramérica

HAVANA, Feb 8 2005 (IPS) - ”I want a clean and healthy bay, with many pelicans feeding in its waters,” says María Luisa Pérez, voicing a dream that many residents in the Cuban capital have for Havana Bay, which at the end of the 20th century was still one of the most polluted in the world.

It may no longer be a fantasy, judging by the return of the enormous deep-billed birds searching for their daily sustenance in the bay’s waters.

”If the pelicans are coming around, that’s because there are fish,” says another Havana resident, Manuel, as he prepares his fishing gear to try his luck in spot along the coast where he can see boats approach the port.

Manuel says he fishes only occasionally, but not far from him is Yosvani, who has arranged his fishing tackle, and says he comes here daily and usually catches horse mackerel (Trachurus trachurus¡) and ‘sábalos’ (familia Megalopidae), among other types.

”They are fish that come and go, but I don’t think they live in the bay, because there is still a lot of petroleum and also the filth that comes from the rivers,” Yosvani adds.

In the mid-1980s the lack of oxygen, due to the burden of organic material received by the ecosystem, made survival of marine fauna in the bay impossible. ”Just about any kind of contaminant was coming in, it was a chaotic situation,” admits Antonio Villasol, director of the Centre for Engineering and Environmental Management of Bays and Coastal Zones (CIMAB).

Villasol and Jesús Beltrán González, head of CIMAB’s pollution department and Havana Bay water quality project, agree that the outlook is different today, as proved by the 2004 water and sediment tests.

”Today we still say it is a contaminated bay, but with levels very similar to those of other parts of the Caribbean and with problems that are less serious than many others of the Wider Caribbean, and even outside the region,” says Villasol.

The Wider Caribbean encompasses all of the Caribbean islands and the continental shores of this sea, extending from Mexico to French Guyana, and even includes El Salvador, which has no Caribbean coastline.

The latest report by the Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA), a body of the United Nations Environment Programme, Havana Bay is a ”well-documented case” of how contamination from land-based sources can affect a marine ecosystem, with impacts for the entire region (see infograph).

According to GIWA, rapid economic growth in the 1970s and 1980s in Cuba triggered unregulated development of the bay, which covers 5.2 square kilometres and holds 47 million cubic metres of water.

The report describes related Cuban legislation as ”outdated” and bay management as ”fragmented”, and notes that implementation of new pollution-controlling technology over the past three decades was halted due to imports of highly contaminating Russian machinery and to the economic restrictions created by the U.S. embargo against the socialist island-nation.

However, more recent measurements indicate improvements in the water quality of the bay, which daily receives more than 300,000 cubic metres of wastewater via rivers, rain ditches, industrial dumping and some sewage runoff from Havana.

Another report, not yet official, which Villasol and Beltrán provided to Tierramérica, indicates that the average variation of oxygen dissolved in surface waters rose from 4.02 milligrams per litre in 1991-1995 to 6.34 milligrams in 2004, while at the bay’s floor it increased from 2.94 to 4.35 milligrams per litre for those periods.

”It is estimated that above 2.0 milligrams per litre is enough to sustain life in any aquatic ecosystem, and the minimum value recommended by international standards to say that there is good water quality is 5.0,” explained Beltrán.

Oxygen levels in the bay’s depths will take longest to recover, he added.

While oxygen improved, the burden of hydrocarbons in the water decreased, thanks to a series of technological improvements made to the old Nico López oil refinery and to the capital’s gas plant. Studies show that the refinery dumped less hydrocarbon waste than the rest of the city through runoff from gas stations, parking lots and mechanic workshops.

In the mid-1980s, around 30 tons of petroleum were dumped in the bay on a daily basis. CIMAB figures indicate that the average for hydrocarbons in surface waters fell from 3.35 milligrams per litre in 1981-1985 to 0.21 in 2004.

Conservation of the bay is entrusted to a state work group, GTE, established in 1998. It charges taxes for port services in order to reinvest in the Havana Bay ecosystem and to monitor compliance with regulations applied to industry in regards to eliminated contaminants.

The creation of GTE was recommended in a regional project, with financing from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which evaluated the conditions of the marine ecosystem and the investment needs for cleaning it up.

The project recommended creating a port authority for the bay, and ”that process is under way,” according to Villasol.

Also emerging from the GEF project was financing for building a wastewater treatment plant on the middle Luyanó River, one of the main carriers of contaminants into Havana Bay.

A similar plant, located at the mouth of the river and built with support from Italy, through UNDP, will begin operation at the end of the year, and is expected to resolve up to 60 percent of the organic waste problem and take care of 100 percent of industrial waste, according to CIMAB.

(*Originally published Jan. 29 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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