Cuba Facts is an ongoing
series of succinct fact sheets on various topics, including, but
not limited to, political structure, health, economy, education,
nutrition, labor, business, foreign investment, and demographics,
published and updated on a regular basis by the Cuba Transition
The Ecological Bootprint in Cuba
Recent media attention has focused on Cuba’s legal framework
for environmental protection, the small “ecological footprint”
of Cuba relative to other countries, and the eco-friendliness of
the Cuban government. (1) A deeper analysis of the situation in
Cuba reveals that this characterization is not supported by the
environmental realities on the island.
According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), water
pollution in Cuba is a serious concern, particularly since there
is a marked lack of infrastructure to address the issue. Of the
2,160 main contaminant sources recognized by UNEP, 1,273 or 59 percent,
release their pollution into the Cuban environment without any treatment
whatsoever. Another 433, or roughly 20 percent, receive limited
but inadequate treatment before being discharged. (2) This analysis
included agricultural sources of contamination, as well as industrial
and human waste.
Despite its clear importance to the citizens of Cuba, the treatment
of urban sewage in particular is extremely limited: only 17 or 18
percent receives any treatment before discharge into Cuban waterways.
(3) The infrastructure of water and sanitation are beyond the breaking
point and are close to catastrophic failure. Havana’s sewer
system, which was built almost a hundred years ago, has been due
for major repairs for almost five decades and is serving over two
million citizens, well beyond its design capacity of 400,000. (4)
The Cuban government has recognized this as a major environmental
problem on the island, conceding that “pollution in our ground
and marine waters has gradually aggravated…caused mainly by
the deficient state of the sewerage and its incomplete nature in
the majority of cases." (5) UNEP reported an approximate total
of 341,716 tons per year of organic material discharged into Cuban
waters, equivalent to the pollution generated by a population of
over 22.3 million people. It is worth noting that this level is
twice the actual 2005 population of 11.2 million. (6)
The effects of this system on the Cuban environment have been
severe. Cuban bays are widely recognized as being among the most
polluted in the world. (7) The Almendares River, which flows through
Havana, carries the untreated sewage of over 42,000 people directly
to Havana Harbor and coastal waters. (8) There has been evidence
that in Havana, an underground aquifer that provides 36% of the
city’s potable water that runs directly beneath the polluted
Almendares, represents a very high risk of widespread drinking water
contamination for the city. (9)
This is a phenomenon that is being replicated throughout the country:
it has been estimated that annually 863.4 billion gallons of contaminated
water finds its way into Cuba’s rivers, much of it industrial.
(10) A recent study of the groundwater in Moa, usually a naturally
protected resource, concluded that a new water source for the population
of Moa must be developed quickly, as the present source will be
increasingly contaminated with heavy metals much of it from the
nickel industry in the medium to long-term. (11) Tourist facilities
have also exhibited insufficient treatment regimens, as many either
pump waste directly into the sea at some distance from the coast,
or use small oxidation pools, and release lightly treated water
into the ocean. (12)
Overdrawing of Water
Pollution is not the only serious problem facing Cuban water supply.
Cuba’s water distribution infrastructure is crumbling, leading
to gross inefficiencies and tremendous waste. According to a study
by the Pan American Health Organization, the amount of water lost
to leaks in the system is truly alarming: in smaller cities of Cuba
the percentages range from 13 percent in Pinar del Río to
30 percent in Manzanillo to 42 percent in Santa Clara. (13) It has
been estimated that of the 30 million cubic meters of water pumped
into Havana every month, 12 million are wasted. (14) This leads
to an overdrawing situation where extraction from the environment
far exceeds the actual volume that reaches the end user, creating
undue strain on the water resources of the island.
Despite these stark realities, a recent detailed analysis of the
Cuban environment concluded that water issues are not the island’s
most endangered natural resource. While water-related issues were
ranked as four of the top five, the most troubled aspect was terrestrial
degradation, which included the effects on soil quality due primarily
to agriculture, mining, etc. (15) The widespread use of irrigation
in agriculture with poor drainage has caused a significant amount
of salinization of the soil, which leads to acceleration of erosion
and decreased crop yields. According to the United Nations, Granma
province suffers from a 20-40 percent reduction in crop yields due
to increased salt in the soil, while the province of Guantánamo
has been more severely affected with 10 to 70 percent reductions
in yields. (16) Salt-affected soil covers 14 percent of the national
territory, or approximately 1,000,000 hectares. (17) The cost of
recovering these salt-affected soils has been estimated at $1.43
billion. (18) This is one of the main contributors to soil erosion
which according to the Cuban government, affects 60 percent of Cuba’s
territory, which has given rise to serious concerns about desertification,
or extreme topsoil loss. (19)
The standard practices throughout the revolutionary period –
including decades-long neglect of infrastructure, virtually non-existent
pollution limits, and detrimental agricultural practices –
seem to have taken a significant toll on the Cuban environment.
While some recent “eco-friendly” policies, such as urban
agriculture and reduced use of pesticides, have caught the attention
of many, they have mostly been implemented due to shortages and
lack of resources, and do not seem to address the most pressing
issues confronting the Cuban ecosystem. The current situation does
not seem to reveal a deep commitment to environmental protection,
and the challenges that will arise from this use of resources should
be of significant concern to the Cuban government and the island's
1. See World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Planet Report
. The WWF recognizes that the criteria used are limited and need
to include a broader sample of data. Also see “Castro the
Conservationist” National Geographic, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/08/060804-castro-legacy.html.
2. “Integrating Management of Watersheds and Coastal Area
in Caribbean Small Island Developing States: Reporte Nacional, República
de Cuba,” United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
, April 2001.
3. Berro, Carmen Terry, "Cuba: Technologies for Wastewater
Treatment and Disposal-Current Status and Performance", United
Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 1998.
4. Sims, Holly and Vogelman, Kevin “Popular Mobilization
and Disaster Management in Cuba,” Public Administration
and Development, Volume 22, 2002, pp. 389-400.
5. National Environmental Strategy: Cuba, 1997. www.earthsummit2002.org.
6. Anuario Estadístico de Cuba 2005, Oficina Nacional de
7. Maal-Bared, “Comparing environmental issues in Cuba before
and after the Special Period,” Environment International,
9. Incremental Ecological Wastewater Treatment: The Havana Prototype,
University of Washington Urban Planning and Design, 2000, http://online.caup.washington.edu/courses/udpsp00/udp508b/context.html.
10. Aguirre, B. and Portela, Armando, “Environmental degradation
and vulnerability in Cuba,” 2000.
11. Candela, L. and Rodríguez, R., “Changes in groundwater
chemistry due to metallurgical activities in an alluvial aquifer
in the Moa area,” Environmental Geology, July 2004.
12. Maal-Bared, 2006.
13. Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)/CEPIS, Assessment of
Drinking Water and Sanitation 2000 in the Americas, 2000. Available
14. Cepero, Eudel “Environmental Concerns for a Cuba in Transition,”
15. Maal-Bared, 2006.
16. Bio-Physical, Socio-Economic and Environmental Impacts of Salt-Affected
Soils, Food and Agriculture Organization, (FAO), http://www.fao.org/AG/AGL/agll/spush/topic3.htm#cuba.
17. Extent and Causes of Salt-Affected Soils, FAO, http://www.fao.org/AG/AGL/agll/spush/topic2.htm#cuba.
18. González-Núñez, LM et al., “Integrated
Management for the Sustainable Use of Salt-Affected Soils in Cuba,”
Universidad y Ciencia, Volume 20, Number 40, pgs. 85-102, December
19. National Environmental Strategy: Cuba, 1997. www.earthsummit2002.org.
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