Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-CUBA: A Helping Hand for Havana Bay

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Feb 22 2005 (IPS) - Foreign donors are playing a decisive role in the clean-up of Havana Bay, which is inundated daily with over 300,000 cubic metres of polluted water from rivers, storm drains, industries and even the city’s sewer system.

Japan and numerous European countries, some participating through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), are involved in projects that will help clean up the bay and promote sustainable economic development in the surrounding area.

Experts say that almost 60 percent of organic pollutants and 100 percent of industrial wastes will be eliminated once a new water treatment plant goes into operation late this year or early next year. Built with support from Italy, the plant is located at the mouth of the Luyanó River.

And within a few months, construction will begin on another plant, further upstream on the same river, designed to treat household and industrial waste, thanks to a programme backed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The project includes the construction of a “zero emission” building, which processes its own waste water and does not pollute the environment.

“This is an initiative developed in Norway, and if the technology proves successful here in Cuba, it could be used for other building projects in the area around the bay,” UNDP representative Antonio Perera told IPS.

Perera added that specialists from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) worked with the State Working Group for the Clean-Up, Conservation and Development of Havana Bay (GTE-BH) on a study aimed at the potential upgrading of Havana’s sewer system.

The system dates back to the early 20th century, and was designed for the 600,000 inhabitants of the capital at that time. Today, however, it serves close to one million people who live or work in the catchment area of the rivers that feed into the bay. Its modernisation would demand expenditures that this Caribbean island nation cannot handle alone, say experts.

“The overburdening and general wear and tear suffered by the system has led to sewer leakages into the storm drain system, which in turn leads to pollution of the bay,” GTE-BH vice president Angel Valdés told IPS. The group was created in 1998 to formulate and implement environmental clean-up programmes.

The household and industrial wastes dumped into the Luyanó and Martín Pérez Rivers and Tadeo Creek subsequently flow into Havana Bay, which has a surface area of 5.2 square kilometres and is located practically in the centre of this city of 2.2 million inhabitants.

Hydrocarbon pollution is another major problem whose long-term solution will require major investments, such as a radical technological upgrading of the Ñico López oil refinery, the source of much of this pollution.

The hydrocarbon waste flow into the bay has already been reduced by roughly a third since the 1980s as a result of a series of measures adopted, particularly in the oil refinery and a gas plant.

In addition, specially equipped boats designed to clear the water of floating solid waste and hydrocarbons circle the bay every day. The company that operates them is paid by the GTE-BH in accordance with the amount of waste picked up.

The same company is responsible for collecting and incinerating the waste collected from vessels that enter the port of Havana, which pay a tax used by the GTE-BH to finance clean-up and renovation efforts.

Valdés noted that there are other projects in the works to curb hydrocarbon pollution from smaller sources in the catchment area, such as transportation terminals and automotive repair shops.

“If we compare the current situation with the 1980s, there has been a great deal of improvement, but there is still a lot that needs to be done. There are plans for projects that will have a major impact on preserving the environment in the medium and long term, but their execution will depend on securing the needed financing,” he said.

The gradual progress made as a result of a series of initiatives undertaken between 1995 and 2000 is remarkable, Valdés added. “There are now reports of around 50 bird species nesting or living around the bay or in the mangrove swamps that still exist in some of its coves,” he said.

In addition to Japan and Italy, contributions to these clean-up programmes have also been made by governments and organisations in Belgium, Germany and other countries. “This cooperation has allowed us to execute projects, acquire equipment and provide training for our personnel,” said GTE-BH president Armando Choy.

The projects currently underway include environmental education programmes, aimed at promoting community participation in the recovery and preservation efforts and involving the younger generations in the present and future protection of the environment.

“Public participation is essential, and we work most of all with children and adolescents, because it is the future generations who will have to continue the work of preserving the bay. The very concept of sustainable development demands it,” stressed Valdés.

The initiatives being carried out in and around Havana Bay, he added, are supported by Law 81 on the Environment and numerous other related decrees, including those involving protected areas and coastal zones, as well as a series of resolutions and regulations complementing this legislation.

“All of this is accompanied by a process of reviewing and updating our technical, environmental, sanitary and water resource standards, and creating new standards where none previously existed. We may lack experience in terms of implementation, but there is a serious effort underway to modernise the country’s environmental legislation,” he said.

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