[News] Cuba embarks on a 100-year plan to protect itself from climate change

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jan 15 11:11:57 EST 2018


  Cuba embarks on a 100-year plan to protect itself from climate change

By Richard Stone - Jan. 10, 2018

On its deadly run through the Caribbean last September, Hurricane Irma 
lashed northern Cuba, inundating coastal settlements and scouring away 
vegetation. The powerful storm dealt Havana only a glancing blow; even 
so, 10-meter waves pummeled El Malecón, the city’s seaside promenade, 
and ravaged stately but decrepit buildings in the capital’s historic 
district. “There was great destruction,” says Dalia Salabarría 
Fernández, a marine biologist here at the National Center for Protected 
Areas (CNAP).

As the flood waters receded, she says, “Cuba learned a very important 
lesson.” With thousands of kilometers of low-lying coast and a location 
right in the path of Caribbean hurricanes, which many believe are 
intensifying because of climate change, the island nation must act fast 
to gird against future disasters.

Irma lent new urgency to a plan, called Tarea Vida, or Project Life, 
adopted last spring by Cuba’s Council of Ministers. A decade in the 
making, the program bans construction of new homes in threatened coastal 
areas, mandates relocating people from communities doomed by rising sea 
levels, calls for an overhaul of the country’s agricultural system to 
shift crop production away from saltwater-contaminated areas, and spells 
out the need to shore up coastal defenses, including by restoring 
degraded habitat. “The overarching idea,” says Salabarría Fernández, “is 
to increase the resilience of vulnerable communities.”

But the cash-strapped government had made little headway. Now, “Irma 
[has] indicated to everybody that we need to implement Tarea Vida in a 
much more rapid way,” says Orlando Rey Santos, head of the environment 
division at Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment 
(CITMA) here, which is spearheading the project. The government aims to 
spend at least $40 million on Project Life this year, and it has 
approached overseas donors for help. Italy was the first to respond, 
pledging $3.4 million to the initiative in November 2017. A team of 
Cuban experts has just finished drafting a $100 million proposal that 
the government plans to submit early this year to the Global Climate 
Fund, an international financing mechanism set up under the United 
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Many countries with vulnerable coastlines are contemplating similar 
measures, and another island nation—the Seychelles— has offered to 
collaborate on boosting coastal protection in Cuba. But Project Life 
stands out for taking a long view: It intends to prepare Cuba for 
climatological impacts over the next century. “It’s impressive,” says 
marine scientist David Guggenheim, president of Ocean Doctor, a 
nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that has projects in Cuba. “Cuba is an 
unusual country in that they actually respect their scientists, and 
their climate change policy is science driven.”

Rising sea levels pose the most daunting challenge for Cuba. Over the 
past half-century, CITMA says, average sea levels have risen some 7 
centimeters, wiping out low-lying beaches and threatening marsh 
vegetation, especially along Cuba’s southern midsection. The coastal 
erosion is “already much worse than anyone expected,” Salabarría 
Fernández says. Storms drive the rising seas farther inland, 
contaminating coastal aquifers and croplands.

Still worse is in store, even in conservative scenarios of sea-level 
rise, which forecast an 85-centimeter increase by 2100. According to the 
latest CITMA forecast, seawater incursion will contaminate nearly 24,000 
square kilometers of land this century. About 20% of that land could 
become submerged. “That means several percent of Cuban land will be 
underwater,” says Armando Rodríguez Batista, director of science, 
technology, and innovation at CITMA.

To shore up the coastlines, Project Life aims to restore mangroves, 
which constitute about a quarter of Cuba’s forest cover. “They are the 
first line of defense for coastal communities. But so many mangroves are 
dying now,” Salabarría Fernández says. Leaf loss from hurricane-force 
winds, erosion, spikes in salinity, and nutrient imbalances could all be 
driving the die-off, she says.

Coral reefs can also buffer storms. A Cuban-U.S. expedition that 
circumnavigated the island last spring found that many reefs are in 
excellent health, says Juliett González Méndez, a marine ecologist with 
CNAP. But at a handful of hot spots, reefs exposed to industrial 
effluents are ailing, she says. One Project Life target is to squelch 
runoff and restore those reefs.

Another pressing need is coastal engineering. Topping Cuba’s wish list 
are jetties or other wave-disrupting structures for protecting not only 
the iconic Malecón, but also beaches and scores of tiny keys frequented 
by tourists whose spending is a lifeline for many Cubans. Cuba has 
appealed to the Netherlands to lend its expertise in coastal engineering.

Perhaps the thorniest element of Project Life is a plan to relocate 
low-lying villages. As the sea invades, “some communities will 
disappear,” Salabarría Fernández says. The first relocations under the 
initiative took place in October 2017, when some 40 families in 
Palmarito, a fishing village in central Cuba, were moved inland.

Other communities may not need to pull up stakes for decades. But Cuban 
social scientists are already fanning out to those ill-fated villages to 
educate people on climate change and win them over on the eventual need 
to move. That’s an easier sell in the wake of a major hurricane, 
Rodríguez Batista says. “Irma has helped us with public awareness,” he 
says. “People understand that climate change is happening now.”

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