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Climate Change

Cuba Wakes Up to Costs of Climate Change Effects

Waves bursting over the Malecón seawall and promenade in Havana. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

HAVANA, Jun 17 2013 (IPS) - “How much is a species worth? What is the price tag on the services provided by a river or a forest?” These are the questions biologist María Elena Perdomo is asking to encourage Cubans to take account of environmental costs, which may apparently be incorporated in the present economic reforms.

“Climate change effects reduce biodiversity, cause a decline in quality of life, change landscapes and have enormous social consequences. But what does all this mean in economic terms?” asks Perdomo, a researcher at the Centre for Environmental Studies and Services in Villa Clara, 268 kilometres from Havana.

In an interview with IPS, she said that this kind of analysis should be given more attention when decisions are being made about how to protect the environment, and when planning ecological projects, defining environmental education messages and programmes and planning construction or other works that could harm vulnerable areas.

“One way of determining the value of a service, resource or ecosystem is to consider the cost of replacing it if it were not available,” she said. “What losses are caused by a tropical cyclone or a prolonged drought? How much would it cost to take clean water to arable lands left without water sources?”

In Cuba, as in other Caribbean countries, the effects of global warming will have the greatest impact on coastal areas, although the whole island will be increasingly affected by extreme weather events, such as heat waves, prolonged periods of drought and heavy rains. Potable water and fertile land will be scarcer and biodiversity will be diminished.

Some 80 coastal settlements are likely to be affected and 15 could disappear by 2050 if the Cuban government does not implement adaptation measures in response to the prediction that, by then, 2.32 percent of the national territory will be permanently under water, according to the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment.

Because of this situation, conservation and remediation of natural areas that can contribute to mitigating temperature rise is another challenge for Cuba’s 11.2 million people and its economy, which is struggling to emerge from a severe crisis that has lasted over 20 years.

The strategic programme of economic and social reforms begun in 2008 by the government of President Raúl Castro includes addressing environmental problems. This year, that approach became more visible as using renewable sources of energy, which are much less polluting than fossil fuels, became a higher priority.

The authorities are directing investments so that by 2030 about 10 percent of the energy consumed in the country will come from wind, sun, water and other renewable sources, it was announced this month.

The ministry has also created an environmental research and management macro-project to consider climate change vulnerability and risk assessment in coastal zones from 2050 to 2100, which includes recommendations for adaptation measures.

“Often there is no reliable quantitative evaluation of natural resources,” said Perdomo. Other problems that have been identified, she added, are the lack of “financing for remediation, lack of decision-making power in local communities, and lack of financial support for environmental education.”

A study published in 2012 by the Revista Cubana de Geografía, an online geographical journal, estimated the total cost of restoring the vegetation along the banks of the river Guanabo, in the Cuban capital, at 825,500 dollars, according to figures from Unidad Silvícola, a state forestry unit in Havana.

To remedy damage to the vegetation of the Guanabo river basin caused by human activity, the research study found that forests, “cuabal” (dry-adapted thorny scrub growing on thin soil or bare rock) and mangroves would all have to be restored, to allow natural regeneration to occur.

Replanting efforts would take until 2022, says the study titled “Valoración económica de las afectaciones ambientales al recurso bosque en la franja hidrorreguladora de la corriente principal del río Guanabo, La Habana, Cuba” (Cost of environmental damage to forest resources in the hydro-regulating zones along the main course of the Guanabo river, Havana, Cuba).

This area has been subjected to indiscriminate exploitation for years, with the result that forests and thickets have been fragmented and destroyed, river channels eroded and bodies of water polluted with sediments, among other effects, the study says. If nothing is done, the costs of remediation will increase, the authors warn.

The National Statistics Office reported that Cuba spent 37 million dollars more on environmental protection in 2012 than in the previous year. However, expenditure on river basins of national interest fell by 81,000 dollars in the same period.

The report “Social Panorama of Latin America 2012” by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) says that the environment was one of the most neglected areas in the region over the last two decades. On average, the region’s countries devoted 0.2 percent of public expenditure to environmental actions, sanitation, housing and drinking water during that period.

“Communities should be mitigating factors, not agents that accelerate climate change,” Sandra Ribalta, the coordinator of Ando Reforestando, a community reforestation and awareness-raising project in Havana, told IPS. “Our population sees climate change as something that will happen far in the future, or simply isn’t aware of it as a problem.”

Alba Camejo, an environmental communicator, told IPS that “things are being done, but information about them needs to be circulated more widely.”

That is why she started Árbol de Vida (Tree of Life), a way of spreading the word about environmental actions using a web site and a subscriber list of more than 10,000 email addresses.

Torrential rains from tropical storm Andrea buffeted the western province of Pinar del Río in the first few days of June, pouring down almost twice the province’s average rainfall for the month. Local authorities are now taking stock of the environmental damage and agricultural and housing losses left in its wake.

According to preliminary reports, the state Provincial Environmental Unit of Pinar del Río identified damage to the dunes of the Boca de Galafre beach. The local press was told that the downpours may also have caused deforestation in certain locations, among other destructive effects.

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