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Posted July 27, 2007 by publisher in Cuban Healthcare

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The condition of Cuba’s environment and its effects on the society have been treated as state secrets. The result is widespread ignorance. This report by Armando H. Portela, Ph.D., a geographer from Miami and Benigno E. Aguirre, Ph.D., a sociologist from College Station, Texas goes into great detail about air pollution, water pollution, deforestation, soil degradation, urban infrastructure and hazards and disasters in Cuba. I found it on the Internet and thought it was interesting so I have pasted in some of the more interesting points below. I could not find a date on it but it was done some time after 2000.

Air Pollution

Very few environmental reports available
to the public are based on analytical information systematically
collected in the field and processed in laboratories. The
Ministry of Public Health, better endowed for this purpose than
other branches of government, has produced or published few
precise documents dealing with health conditions and
environmental degradation. Until very recently these documents
were kept secret. Fortunately this has begun to change however
slowly in the 1990s. An example is a report by Hernandez and
Bonito (1998) documenting severe air pollution in Havana. Their
research, dating back to 1994, focused on the sulfating index
(the amount of sulfur oxides emanating primarily from industrial
chimney stacks) in the core of Havana, where roughly one million
people, or roughly 47 percent of the city’s total population
reside, and where the density in some municipalities surpasses
750 dwellers per city block.

Sulfur oxides—undesirable residues of combustion that are
produced mostly in power plants when sulfur-rich fuels are
burned—create respiratory problems and cause acid rain. Cuba
replaced part of the vanished Soviet fuel imports of the late
1980s with domestic crude containing roughly six percent sulfur.
It is used mostly in power plants and to run cement factories;
in 1999 industry used approximately 2.2 million tons or 13.9
million barrels per year of domestic crude oil.

According to the Cuban scientists, the two main sources of
sulfuric gases within the city limits are the old thermal power
plants of Tallapiedra in the Old Havana neighborhood and the
Antonio Maceo plant in Regla, across the Bay of Havana. In both
of these neighborhoods they recorded the highest level of
environmental pollution, measuring up to 7.7 milligrams of
sulfides per square decimeter per day at the Tallapiedra Power
Plant (one square decimeter equals 16 square inches).
Concentrations above 4 milligrams per day were found
forming a plume that embraced most of the municipalities of Old
Havana, Central Havana, Regla, Diez de Octubre and Cerro (with a
combined population of roughly 800,000).
Three secondary sources in the metallurgic, chemical and
construction industries were also associated with air pollution,
all of them located in the environs of Havana Bay.

Water Pollution

It is estimated that throughout Cuba
about 430 million cubic meters (113.5 billion gallons) of water
contaminated with agricultural, industrial and urban wastes are
dumped into the sea annually (Nuevo Atlas Nacional de Cuba,
1989). More than 3,270 million cubic meters (863.4 billion
gallons) find their way into rivers. While the use of chemical
fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides has been severely
reduced since the early 1990s, for almost a quarter of a century
more than one million tons of fertilizers and 30,000 tons of
pesticides and herbicides were used annually (Herrera and Seco,
(1986). Much of it accumulated in ground water and lakes
(CubaNews, January 1994).

During the past decade, direct dumping of untreated
industrial liquid waste into rivers, aquifers or the sea around
Cuba has been the norm. At best some of the waste received a
low level of treatment. Half of this impressive volume is
dumped directly into underground aquifers, thus contaminating
the reservoir at the source. Based on internationally accepted
standards, Cuban scientists estimate that this volume of
industrial liquid waste pollutes roughly 1.84 billion cubic
meters of clean water per year (486 billion gallons), creating
an annual runoff per capita of 167 cubic meters of industrially
contaminated water (44 thousand gallons) (Portela, CubaNews,
January 1998).

One of the most serious cases, albeit less publicized, is
the contamination produced by the nickel industry on the
northeastern end of the island. A Cuban press release six years
ago (Prensa Latina, 1994) disclosed that the Pedro Soto Alba
plant (formerly, Moa Bay) dumped more than 12,000 cubic meters
of untreated liquid waste (3.17 billion gallons) into the sea
daily. The waste contained 72 tons of aluminum, 48 tons of
chromium, 15 tons of magnesium and 30 tons of sulfuric acid. By
way of comparison, the treatment standards for wastewater in the
United States limit the concentration of chromium to a maximum
of 0.32 milligrams per liter, 12 times less than the daily
dumping into Moa Bay by only one of the three nickel plants
operating in the area.

While no comprehensive nationwide assessment is available
of river, bay and lake contamination, there is information on
some of the worst cases. Havana Bay is one of the most polluted
marine environments of the world. The bay is the most important
trade hub of the island as well as the preferred dumping site
for the growing population that has settled in the capital city
at the water’s edge. Domestic garbage, sewage, industrial waste
and the refuse of the growing commercial ship traffic are
routinely disposed of directly into the waters of the bay or in
nearby sites and tributaries.

During l970-89 an unprecedented increase in the level of
industrial investment and international trade produced an
uncontrolled environmental impact on the bay. By the end of the
1980s, Cuban fuel imports averaged 96 million barrels annually,
a four-fold increase over the average of the 1950s (CEPAL,
1999). Because the delicate ecosystems surrounding Cuban ports
became a preferred location for the largest industrial
investments and also served as the heart of the cargo transport
system, the impact of this industrial growth was felt most
deeply in them. Paradoxically, the current decline of
industrial activity, along with the shrinkage of foreign trade,
could be producing a subtle cleaning of these marine

In spite of the fact that in 1997 the Port Cleaning Unit
recovered only 200 tons of free floating hydrocarbons, less than
3 percent of the total, the operation was seen as a success
because the bay had never been cleaned at all before. Such
simple actions as the construction of a soil berth between the
sea front and the oil refinery or the use of floating barriers
on the nearby waters to confine accidental or operational spills
were only recently implemented.

The organic matter and trash reaching the bay from the
surrounding industries through tributaries and creeks or from
the direct discharge of untreated domestic sewage is another
problem. It has been reduced from an average of 105 tons per
day in the past decade to 85 in the late 1990s. Without
disclosing figures, an official from the Ministry of Science,
Technology and Environment also mentioned as a concern the high
level of Coliform microorganisms in the water. One of the more
acute problems is the illegal connection of the sewage drain to
the storm drain system. The sanitary sewer system built over
100 years ago and lacking maintenance, reinforcement or
enhancement for decades is unable to support the current
population needs.

The main source of water pollution lies in the more than
300 industrial facilities, warehouses, and workshops and some
4,000-service entities located around the bay. Fifty-three
industrial facilities are located in the immediate proximity of
the bay, and another 84 industries produce waste that indirectly
discharges into the bay through tributary streams. The port
activity itself is also one of the major sources of
contamination for the bay. It is estimated that the ships
served in the port generate 150,000 tons of refuse per year.
Among the worse offenders is the Nico Lopez oil refinery,
whose frequent spills ran directly to the sea until a concrete
barricade was built around the facility to prevent the
discharge, with mixed success (Portela, CubaNews, September
1998). Another major polluter is the old Luyano Gas Plant whose
outdated technology based on the use of naphtha caused frequent
operational failures. The plant is a major source of
atmospheric contamination. Among the other sources of pollution
of the bay are four slaughter houses, one animal feeder plant, a
yeast factory, several distilleries, a paint plant, three
thermal power plants and several food processing factories whose
waste waters used to be discharged either slightly treated or
plainly untreated into the bay.

There is other no less acute and urgent water pollution
problems everywhere. One is the Almendares River, which has
been recently studied by the International Atomic Energy Agency
of the United Nations and the Cuban Higher Institute of Nuclear
Science and Technology. The river is the most important in
Havana, but it is neither long nor deep—barely 25 miles in
length and little more than a trickle for the greater part of
the year—thanks to the placement of dams upstream and heavy
pumping in the middle and upper basins. Overuse is so great
that it has often turned dry for an entire winter season. Close
to its mouth, the stream becomes a wider, deeper and darker mass
of lifeless, muddy water.

The Almendares River runs through agricultural and
industrial zones, military bases and densely populated areas,
all of which dump untreated sewage into the stream. So far, the
investigators have identified 51 pollution sources, ranging from
steel foundries to ice cream factories, mechanical workshops,
paper mills and breweries. Nevertheless, unidentified, unknown,
disperse effusions probably have a tremendous impact on the
quality of the water. These include underground fuel tanks and
unsafe waste-dumping sites (CubaNews, December 1997).
More generally, the north coast of Havana—a region
including Havana Bay and the Almendares River and demarcated by
the Santa Ana River to the West and the Guanabo River to the
east—is an ecologically fragile and extremely threatened
environment (Batista, 1999).

Elsewhere, the Cauto River basin is also severely impacted
by pollution and environmental degradation (Gonzalez Otero et
al., 1989). The basin is the most extensive in the island, with
an area equivalent to eight percent of the entire country and
9.3 percent of its agricultural land. One quarter of Cuba’s
rice is grown in it; the basin produces one tenth of the
national sugar output. The life of every tenth Cuban is
directly linked to the basin. The depletion of the
environmental quality of the Cauto River basin over the past
three or four decades is a serious national problem. The damage
covers a broad range of ecological issues:

*One third of the basin suffers from severe erosion.
*Salt-water intrusions have spoiled most of the
groundwater reservoirs.
*The natural runoff has been reduced by 60 percent in
recent decades.
*The forested areas have been nearly annihilated.

A survey of the basin found 652 “pollutant hubs,”
including industries, urban sewage systems and cattle farms that
produce impressive amounts of untreated waters that contribute
to further deterioration.

There are critical problems elsewhere too. A recent
report (Radio Rebelde, May 17, 1997) pointed out that eight
sugar mills in Camaguey province spill up to five cubic meters
of untreated waste water per second, or 77.8 million cubic
meters during the harvest period. It should be noted that the
reservoir capacity of the entire Camaguey province is 361.8
million cubic meters, so that only eight of its 14 sugar mills
could be polluting as much water in only a few months (Portela,
CubaNews, July 1997).

A fourth major area of water pollution is the Laguna del
Tesoro. It is the largest natural fresh water reservoir on the
island. Recent measurements in the Zapata Swamps, where the
lake is located, found that the lake water level has dropped 80
centimeters (31.5 inches) or roughly one fifth of the average
depth of the lake. The loss of water was put at 6.4 million
cubic meters (1.7 billion gallons). It is attributable to the
demolition of levees and the deepening and widening of channels
out of the lake by state owned rice farms located nearby. The
rice farms have been draining nearby swamps, which have also
reduced the level of the lake. Untreated wastewaters from at
least two sugar mills located near the lake are a source of
pollution, as are low levels of pesticides and fertilizers from
nearby farming operations. This pollution has begun to affect
the local fauna, especially the trout population of the lake.
The potential economic impact is enormous; after the popular
Varadero Beach resort, Laguna del Tesoro is the second most
popular tourist destination in Matanzas province (CubaNews,
March 1999).

The growth of tourism threatens some coastal areas (Wald,
February 1996). This has occurred as Cuba accelerated the
development of tourist facilities in an effort to attract
overseas visitors. A well-known case is the construction of
causeways in the northern keys. The project was designed to
link all the keys to each other and to the mainland in order to
provide overland transportation for the tourists and for the
movement of construction materials and supplies for the hotels.
Ecologists first voiced their concerns when they studied the
effects of the causeway linking Sabinal Key with the mainland at
Nuevitas, 400 miles east of Havana. A restricted study by the
Cuban Geodesic and Cartography Institute (1990) showed that the
obstruction of water circulation was leading to the
disappearance of the mangroves. Fish and other species were
dying or migrating to other areas. Although this study led to
the modification of future plans for causeways, it did not stop
construction. The Cayo Coco causeway tried to provide for some
water flow, but it was not enough. Water stagnated and the
balance between fresh and salt water was disrupted. In
addition, the noise and activity of construction scared off many
species of birds and fish. Simply providing openings in the
causeways did not guarantee adequate water circulation, so that
the solution would be the construction of bridges or the
destruction of the causeways and the provision of maritime

The causeways have interfered with the normal flow of
tidal and marine currents, and have limited the exchange of
water between the interior waters of the marine platform and the
ocean. Experts foresee serious ecological damage as a result of
increased salinity; building dams on rivers block fresh water,
the construction of dikes, and during periods of scant rainfall
and excessive evaporation of the sea. There is massive death of
all forms of marine life, both animal and vegetable. Already,
the causeway linking Cayo Coco with the mainland and another
joining it to Cayo Romano, exacerbated by a dike that obstructs
the flow of clear water to the Bahia de los Perros, has produced
such enormous increments in salinity that all life on the sea
bottom has practically disappeared. Similarly, several species
of fish in the bays of los Perros and Jiguey have nearly
vanished. Important mangrove areas died after a causeway was
built between Cayo Coco and Cayo Romano.


  1. Follow up post #1 added on February 19, 2008 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    An article about the Bayamo River clean up here.

    Cuba consulting services

  2. Follow up post #2 added on February 10, 2011 by JC

    Biased much? Way to be objective… Waste management in Cuba is not a state secret. There is plenty of academic literature out there. I’m sick and tired of these pro-American/anti-Cuban smear articles justifying the Westernization of our planet’s last great hope of a truly sustainable nation. %&#! off with your slander.

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