Biodiversity, Civil Society, Climate Change, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CLIMATE CHANGE-CUBA: Prized Wetland in Danger

Patricia Grogg* - Tierramérica

CIÉNAGA DE ZAPATA, Cuba, May 10 2008 (IPS) - If the worst outcomes predicted for climate change in Cuba become reality, a large portion of the Ciénaga de Zapata, the largest and best preserved wetland in the islands of the Caribbean Sea, could disappear by the second half of this century.

Crocodiles in Cuba&#39s Ciénaga de Zapata.  Credit: J. Haedo

Crocodiles in Cuba's Ciénaga de Zapata. Credit: J. Haedo

The Ciénaga de Zapata provides habitat for birds that are only found in Cuba, like the Zapata wren (Ferminia cerverai), sparrow (Torreornis inexpectata) and rail (Cyanolimnas cerverai). It is estimated that the marsh holds 65 percent of Cuba’s birdlife, in addition to 1,000 plant species.

The area, dominated by low plains, marshes and semi-wetlands, with savannah vegetation, holds forests, rivers and lakes, as well as 70 kilometres of caves in which semicircular freshwater lagoons have formed, known in Spanish as “cenotes”.

But people who live less than 40 metres from the coast are not ready to give up the pleasure of being lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves.

“People are resistant to leaving. They like to live near the sea,” acknowledges Luis Lazo, a delegate from the citizen commission of Caletón, a neighbourhood near the water, where waves nearly reach the patios of the houses.

According to Lazo, so far this century the wetland has already survived several tropical cyclones and hurricanes that have thrashed this vast municipality in Matanzas province, which covers 4,520 square kilometres and has fewer than 10,000 inhabitants.

The worst was Hurricane Michelle, which hit on Nov. 4, 2001, with winds of 210 km/hour. “We expected the water to reach up to nine kilometres inland from Michelle’s impact. That was not the case, though many houses were destroyed and only the evacuation of families prevented the loss of human lives,” Lazo said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

Some experts believe the greater intensity of the hurricanes is a consequence of global climate change. “The ocean is warmer than before, and therefore conditions are more favourable to the formation of tropical cyclones of even greater strength,” says Tomás Gutiérrez, director general of the Cuban Institute of Meteorology.

Pablo Bouza, director of the Ciénaga de Zapata National Park, warns that the combination of hurricanes and drought can lead to more fires, as it did in 2007 with fires lasting 45 days and causing serious damage to 5,000 hectares, 70 percent of which was forest.

“The hurricanes leave a great deal of accumulated vegetation on the ground, which dries from the lack of rain and becomes fuel for fires, which spread quickly when the marsh is dry,” said Bouza. Experts are studying prevention strategies to minimise the effects of fire under these new circumstances.

Pressed by a threat that is more or less imminent, environmentalists and experts are carrying out an offensive to raise awareness and inform citizens and authorities in the region about climate change and its consequences.

“Last year we held three workshops with the participation of community members and representatives of different economic and social sectors. That way we could design a project with the main problems and the possible actions we should develop,” said environmental management expert Leyaní Caballero.

Although the climate change adaptation strategy is still being elaborated and has not yet been made public, part of the action plan is already being implemented. “The people don’t realise how vulnerable they are to this problem, nor do they know what they should do. That’s why this year we are bringing the discussion to the neighbourhoods,” she said.

Screenings of the film “Climate Change: The Challenge Continues”, or presentations by experts precede each neighbourhood debate. The idea, says Caballero, is for people to perceive the risk and to understand that the marsh needs to be managed in a rational and sustainable way.

According to scientific projections, the sea level of the Cuban archipelago could rise eight to 44 centimetres by 2050, or 20 to 95 cm by 2100. Water that high would reduce the land area of Ciénaga de Zapata by one-fifth.

A sea level rise of just 30 cm would also threaten freshwater sources because the inflow of saltwater would contaminate the wetland reserves, while causing great harm to the flora and fauna.

Average temperatures would also see significant increases, intensifying droughts and making the climate drier in general, with notable effects on the ecosystem, which was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 2000 and an internationally important wetland under the Ramsar Convention in 2001.

(*Originally published 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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