By Michael Martinez | Chicago Tribune correspondent
For 6 miles, the Luyano River wends past a panorama of Havana—residences, businesses, industry—before it spills into Havana Bay, one of the busiest but most polluted ports on the Caribbean.
Compared to the 156-mile Chicago River, the Luyano may seem like a stream, but it packs quite a punch on Havana’s environment as the largest of three rivers feeding the capital’s bay.
Now, after a decade of studies, the watershed’s dirtiest river is receiving its first wastewater treatment plant, funded with $4 million from international partners and $20 million from Cuba’s government, according to the international financing body Global Environment Facility.
The waterway is a case study in how Havana’s growth has overwhelmed its century-old public water works, forcing the Luyano and other rivers to become dumping grounds, experts and officials say.
Since the late 1990s, Cuba has been cleaning up the bay through closures, relocations and renovations of 15 industries, officials say. Between 2000 and 2005, oxygen was up, and contaminants such as phosphorous, nitrogen and suspended solids were largely down, sometimes by more than half, GEF figures show.
Untreated sewage ravages bay
Still, tons of untreated sewage and contaminants flow annually through the Luyano, starkly evident earlier this month when rain rinsed the city’s drains.
Ariel Castillo, who has lived the past 25 of his 31 years in a riverbank home, dreads such rainfall; it creates a foul odor in his neighborhood and an unnatural plume in the waterway.
“It’s a devil of a mess,” Castillo said.
Two-thirds of a mile away, crews are laying the foundations to a plant that will treat wastewater from 62,000 inhabitants, but they are behind schedule and experiencing millions of dollars in overruns, according to Cuban and United Nations Development Program officials.
Such inefficiencies have distressed interim leader Raul Castro.