HAVANA — The Malecon stretches for 5 miles along the coast of Havana, flanked by a line of old, pastel-colored buildings. Despite its time-worn look, this emblematic seaside esplanade buzzes with activity, with fishermen, kids, tourists and a steady stream of 1950s-era Chevrolets, Buicks and Plymouths flowing through it.
During the last couple of years, the area has undergone sporadic renovation in the hopes of bringing it back to its former glory, but now there is a bigger change being put in place: No more residential development will be allowed on the oceanfront.
This decision, and many others like it, can be traced back to the impacts of Hurricane Wilma in October 2005. While the hurricane never made landfall, its strong waves pounded the Malecon sea wall and flooded the streets to unprecedented levels.
The heavy damage — estimated at around 704.2 million Cuban pesos ($26.6 million) — and the prolonged disruption of basic public services, was a wake-up call. It prompted a series of actions that would eventually change the country’s approach to climate change.
“With Wilma, we began to take our first steps in calculating the economic damages to the city caused by such an event,” said Odalys Goicochea Cardoso, environment director at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA). “It also brought up how vulnerable we are and how we needed to reflect this somehow.”
Cuba has a long history of climate adaptation measures, even if they weren’t originally conceived as such.
For one, the country has a highly organized disaster prevention and management system, called Civil Defense, designed to protect lives in case of extreme hazards such as hurricanes.
The system was established after Hurricane Flora hit the Caribbean in 1963, leaving over 7,000 people dead in Haiti and Cuba. Now, the island (population 11,241,161 as of the last official census in 2010) consistently experiences the lowest death tolls during hurricane season in the region.
The country has also invested in education over many decades to help people deal with natural disasters. The emphasis, particularly after the Cuban Revolution, helped Cuban experts study and assess the impacts of climate variations.
Building reservoirs and doubling forests
Between 1967 and 1990, Cuba built a significant number of reservoirs, micro-dams and distribution channels to deal with the country’s chronic water shortages. It also planted more trees, bringing its forest coverage up from 14 percent in 1959 to 29 percent by 2015.
According to a report by Oxfam, in 1991, before there was an international commitment to tackle the causes of climate change, Cuba created the National Commission on Climate Change to study the different impacts of the phenomenon.
But as weather grew more extreme, the government realized it couldn’t rely on disaster management alone. In 2005, right after Wilma broke havoc in Havana, Cuba’s Environment Agency took on the task of mapping out the hazards, vulnerabilities and risks for the entire country.
It took eight years to evaluate every possible scenario, break it down by province and municipality, and come up with a series of recommendations.
The resulting study on the “Impact of Climate Change and Adaptation Measures in Cuba,” published last year, found that average maximum temperatures in the country had increased by 0.9 degree Celsius since the second half of last century. More importantly, the average minimum temperature rose by 1.9 degrees Celsius.
During the same period, average rainfall dropped by 10 percent. The country experienced longer episodes of severe drought in the summer, combined with an increase in the frequency of severe rainfall events in the winter.
Since 2001, Cuba has been hit by a record number of eight intense hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5) in the same decade. Between 2005 and 2012 alone, the damages caused by tropical hurricanes — in terms of pre-emptive measures, replacement housing, infrastructure, agriculture and loss of public services — reached almost 21 billion Cuban pesos ($792.5 million), according to the National Bureau of Statistics and Information (ONEI).
The forecast grows more troublesome
The 2008 hurricane season was particularly difficult, with three major hurricanes — Gustav, Ike and Paloma — sweeping through the country, for a total loss of 9.7 billion Cuban pesos ($366 million). Approximately 643,806 homes were damaged, and agricultural and livestock costs shot up to 3.6 billion Cuban pesos ($135.8 million).
Most recently, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused widespread damage, particularly to Santiago de Cuba. Throughout the province, 263,250 homes were affected, electricity and water services were knocked out, and most of the trees in the city were ripped off their roots, generating almost 7 billion Cuban pesos in damages ($264.2 million). At least 11 people were killed.
Based on the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Cuba will face further warming, more frequent extreme weather events and ocean acidification. “Island nations have no rear guard. When the sea rises, it rises all over, and the only thing you can do is move to the center and up,” said Arnaldo Álvarez Brito, lead investigator at the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI).
In 2010, Cuba finished its first national evaluation of the effects of sea-level rise. According to Álvarez, it showed the sea was rising off the Cuban shores at approximately 2 millimeters per year. At this rate, the country was set to lose about 3 percent of its land by 2050, and 5 percent by 2100.
Back then, the climate scenario suggested sea level would rise by 85 centimeters by the end of the century. However, the latest IPCC report predicted a startling change. “In February of this year, I was informed that the new scenario for sea-level rise by 2100, in Cuba, is 1.5 meters — almost twice the one we used four years ago — because now it takes into account the effects of rising temperatures over the poles,” Álvarez said.
For a long, narrow island such as Cuba — with over 3,000 miles of coasts, and over 10 percent of its population living in low-lying areas along the coastline — a rise of 1.5 meters in sea level is a “big problem,” he added.
Combatting coastal sprawl
This is where the Hazards, Vulnerabilities and Risk studies, completed in 2013, come into play. Based on these results, the government has been able to flag the most vulnerable areas and focus its adaptation efforts and resources accordingly.
“They set a sort of base line in terms of what to expect with climate change, what areas are at risk of becoming submerged due to sea-level rise, and based on that, plan the development of the country,” Goicochea said.
In the case of the Malecon of Havana, for example, it was determined that the area was particularly vulnerable to cold fronts and seawater intrusion, and had serious drainage issues. As a result, its zoning was modified. “Obviously, a home in the Malecon must be very pretty, and it’s much coveted, but it wasn’t viable,” she said.
Other initiatives include the promotion of agricultural systems more resilient to the expected effects of climate change, the establishment of an annual water quota by institution and source, maintaining a forestry policy that increases forest coverage, and construction projects to prevent seawater intrusion.
But it hasn’t been easy. According to Goicochea, the thing about environmental investments is that there are no “tangible” returns, making them a hard sell to most people. “Nobody takes into account the avoided costs,” she added.
This became particularly evident a couple of years ago, when the government began executing a drastic program to rehabilitate the coastal area. Some of the problems, it found, it had caused. During the so-called “Special Period” — a period of economic crisis brought upon by the dissolution of the Soviet Union — the country experienced a sprawl of homes and other infrastructure on the coast, which has led to the significant deterioration of its shores.
In 2000, the authorities issued a coastal protection law, which prohibited building over dunes and established a minimum distance of 130 feet from the coast. Yet it wasn’t until 2011 and 2012 that the government began to enforce the requirements.
Starting with the iconic beaches in Varadero, inspectors from the Office of Environmental Regulation and Nuclear Security set out to penalize violations and schedule the necessary demolitions. The idea was to salvage the beach ecosystem and ensure the sustainability of tourism, which represents a $2.6 billion industry.
Demolishing buildings and houses
According to official numbers, in 2012, authorities demolished 287 state-owned properties, such as hotels and retreats, and 198 illegal private properties.
While the law stipulates that anything built before 2000 is technically “legal,” all the activity has put local communities on edge, and not without reason. In Varadero, for example, the government has a list of families that will eventually be relocated to “safer” areas.
The second part of the initiative involves the recovery and restoration of the “natural barriers” in the area, whether by rebuilding dunes, protecting the coral reefs or replenishing mangroves.
“As an element of physical defense of the coastal zone, we have the mangroves,” said Gisela Alonso Dominguez, president of the Environment Agency, which coordinates all climate change-related work. Mangroves act as a natural barrier, protecting the coast from erosion and seawater intrusion. They also help cushion the impact of storm surge and waves.
The government not only has made sure the mangroves are protected, but also has developed a new “ecotechnology” to successfully reforest mangroves where needed.
While these measures won’t stop the sea from rising on Cuban shores, officials agree they’ll buy the country more time to come up with a better solution.
“Right now, all we can aspire to is to have this natural protection,” Alonso said. “So we are working on it,” she added. The program is currently being executed in the northern keys, and later on it will follow in Holguín.
According to Oxfam, adaptation, mitigation and disaster risk reduction and response in Cuba are the result of a “long road travelled.” Climate change has been deemed a political priority at all levels, the report concluded.
“There’s a lot of people doing this line of work, because you can’t wait to have the problem to look for a solution,” Álvarez said.
National and local institutions, such as the Meteorology Institute, the Environment Agency, the Oceanology Institute and the Geography Institute, are working together to implement their adaptation plans before it’s too late.
“A friend of mine has a saying: ‘The longer we take, the more vulnerable we’ll become,’ and that’s what happens,” Álvarez said. “The more you delay finding adaptation measures, the more vulnerable you’ll be. You’ll have less time, you’ll have to spend more money, money will be scarce, and the impact will be bigger,” he said.