Project Life: Cuba prepares for climate change

Issue 
Havana residents wade through floodwaters after Hurrican Irma.

What is to be done about high temperatures, rising sea levels and increasingly powerful hurricanes? What can we do to be less vulnerable to climate change?

Preliminary observations indicate that the sea level around Cuba has risen by an average of 6.77 centimetres since 1966, a process that has accelerated during the past five years. Since the middle of the past century, average annual temperature has risen 0.9oC and the coastline is more fragile than ever.

This reality calls for action, and Cuba is acting on the premise of preparing to avoid lamenting later.

Project Life is the country’s most ambitious project addressing climate change. The plan was passed on April 25 last year by the Council of Ministers and refers to the ideas former president Fidel Castro expressed at the 1992 Earth Summit held in Río de Janeiro: “An important biological species is facing the risk of extinction given the rapid and progressive elimination of its natural conditions for life: humanity.”

The project, led by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment (CITMA), is the most all-encompassing and comprehensive drafted to date, citing locations and actions to be taken in the short term (by 2020), long term (by 2050), and long range (2100).

It outlines five strategic actions and 11 projects to counteract the impact being felt in vulnerable areas.

CITMA environmental director Odalys Goycochea Cardoso said that the plan is comprehensive, and includes the identification of prioritised areas and sites, effects, and steps to be taken. She added that the program is being constantly enriched and expanded as its implementation progresses.

Action research

Lead expert within the Environmental Agency’s risk assessment group, Rudy Montero, explained: “Projections for the future indicate that the average rise in sea level could reach 27 centimetres by 2050, and 85 by 2100, values that fall within the estimated ranges for the entire planet. This implies a slow reduction in dry land and a gradual rise in salinisation, meaning that our underground aquifers will be impacted at a level that must be taken into consideration.”

Given this picture, 103 studies have been conducted on dangers, vulnerability and risks related to weather and precipitation, including the impact of high winds, coastal flooding and heavy rain.

Likewise, research on drought, wildfires, and risks of a geological, technological or health nature have been considered to take action in terms of prevention, preparation, response and recovery — all to confront and reduce risks and vulnerabilities and “to adapt to this phenomenon that affects all”, Montero said.

Coastal flooding produced by extreme weather phenomena has been identified as one of the main dangers from climate change. These floods impact human constructions and the natural environment, and along with rising sea levels, put a number of settlements at risk. “We have identified them, and are going to work on new land use plans for each one.”

Among the strategic measures being implemented is the prohibition of any new construction of dwellings in the threatened coastal settlements, particularly those that eventually may become inundated. The project also calls for reducing population density in low-lying areas and ensuring that all new construction is well-adapted to the environment.

Agriculture and livestock ranching also figure among priorities to be addressed, given their importance to the country’s food security.

Several projected actions address changes in land use patterns as a consequence of rising sea levels and drought. These include reducing cultivated areas along the coastline and in areas affected by saltwater intrusion, diversifying crops, improving soils and introducing and developing varieties resistant to higher temperatures.

Also projected is a process of reordering urban planning in identified settlements and consideration of threatened infrastructure, in accordance with the country’s economic situation.

Accomplishments

Although CITMA is the main body responsible for Project Life, the project necessarily involves many ministries and agencies.

Guantánamo is among the provinces that have made the most progress in carrying out this joint work.

Reforestation of coastal ecosystems, the construction of water treatment plants and the promotion of environmentally friendly agricultural practices are just a few examples of what has been accomplished.

The Ministry of Agriculture is working on replanting mangroves to reduce coastal erosion in this eastern province.

Specialists are also promoting agro-ecological practices to improve soils and conducting other community participation efforts.

“Thanks to this interest, the Yacabo Arriba mountain ecosystem has recovered some 20 hectares affected by erosion and the impact of Hurricane Matthew,” Clark Feoktistova, Citma representative in the province of Guantánamo, said on January 25.

The program of conservation measures to ensure sustainable land use and protect soils has been implemented in all of Guantánamo’s municipalities, on state farms and within cooperatives, he indicated.

In an effort to mitigate the impact of drought in the province, the National Institute of Water Resources has undertaken, among other projects, the construction of several water treatment plants in the municipalities of Niceto Pérez, Manuel Tames and Maisí, along with the drilling of 12 wells to access water in underground aquifers.

The province of Ciego de Ávila has prioritised the use of technology to promote water conservation. Looking to reduce leaks in its distribution network and protect groundwater — key to economic and social life — more than 6000 metres of pipes have been installed in homes, principally in the provincial capital, Morón, and Majagua, according to Héctor Rosabales Pérez, the water infrastructure director in the province.

Another short-term mitigation effort is the replenishment of sand on beaches on the province’s northern keys that have experienced erosion. This is a problem affecting many areas in the country, including Las Tunas where the impact has been strong.

The province of Sancti Spíritus has also made progress with the implementation of Project Life. The Sur de Jíbaro Agro-industrial Grain Enterprise and the Rice Research Station have done outstanding work in the development of crop varieties resistant to salinity and drought stress. Of equal importance has been the repair and recovery of irrigation canals to protect the fresh water they carry to the coastline, to help reduce the salt wedge.

Climate change is impacting this province mainly in the form of rising sea levels, which is affecting beaches, tourist development, and agricultural production.

Leonel Díaz, Citma representative in Sancti Spíritus, explained that saltwater intrusion, soil erosion and the disappearance of mangroves have severely affected the municipalities of Sierpe and Sancti Spíritus.

Over the years, he added, a number of steps have been taken to mitigate the environmental impact of climate change, including important educational work in communities to raise awareness.

Saving lives

Cuba’s high level of vulnerability as an island nation makes rising sea levels the element that most affects the country, in terms of climate change.

In a recent interview in Juventud Rebelde, Minister of Science, Technology and the Environment Elba Rosa Pérez Montoya said: “Project Life involves everyone.”

She believes raising consciousness about climate change in the population is essential, so that everyone is involved in action to meet the challenge. “The projects are highly complicated, since environmental investments must be made, which are characterised by their significant cost and special requirements. Those that have been made are based on the research of many scientists, and are today systematised.”

Among Project Life’s 11 projects are: identifying and implementing projects to adapt to climate change; assuring the availability and efficient use of water to confront drought; reforesting to protect soils and water; stopping the deterioration of coral reefs by restoring and protecting them; and measures, plans and projects linked to renewable energy, food security, health and tourism.

Also included are: protecting urban waterfronts; relocating at-risk human settlements; and integrating recovery of beaches, mangroves and other protective natural ecosystems waterworks and coastal engineering projects.

Priorities are based on protecting human life in the most vulnerable areas, food security and the development of tourism.

While Project Life is being enriched as it is being implemented over time, and as action is taken, Cuba is aware that what is most important is foreseeing and confronting climate change. The ambitious, complex project shows the government’s determination to reduce vulnerability and raise risk perception.

[Abridged from Climate & Capitalism.]