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Issue 26 - November 2006


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 Project staff.

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.

Water Pollution

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.

Soil Degradation

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 future.



1. See World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Planet Report 2006,” . 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,

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.

6. Anuario Estadístico de Cuba 2005, Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas, 2006.

7. Maal-Bared, “Comparing environmental issues in Cuba before and after the Special Period,” Environment International, 2006.

8. Ibid.

9. Incremental Ecological Wastewater Treatment: The Havana Prototype, University of Washington Urban Planning and Design, 2000,

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 at:

14. Cepero, Eudel “Environmental Concerns for a Cuba in Transition,” 2004.

15. Maal-Bared, 2006.

16. Bio-Physical, Socio-Economic and Environmental Impacts of Salt-Affected Soils, Food and Agriculture Organization, (FAO),

17. Extent and Causes of Salt-Affected Soils, FAO,

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 2004.

19. National Environmental Strategy: Cuba, 1997.


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