As Sea Levels Rise, Cuba Acts

Waves crashing over the Malecón, Havana’s waterfront esplanade, have residents worried about rising sea levels (Photo by Katrina Ruggiero).

By Ashley Somwaru

From the Malecón, an esplanade that stretches five miles along Havana’s bay, the city appears stuck in time, some of its buildings and battlements dating back to the 16th century  and seemingly immovable.

But stability may be an illusion. In fact, the frequent waves breaking over the Malecón are witness to changing times.

Usually, the sea surges about 20 feet below the top of the esplanade’s concrete wall. But residents say waves break over it with increasing frequency, sometimes forcing the closure of the wide roadway that runs beside it.

“I’ve lived here all my life and the waves were never this high,” said Pedro Vázquez, a Cuban architect who has lived in Havana for decades. While he is no climate change expert, he sees in the rising waters a sign that “global warming is real.”

Sea level rise is occurring in many areas of Cuba, but especially along the southern coast (Havana is on the north coast), so much so that the government is looking into relocating  residents inland and is implementing environmental programs to shore up coastal areas, said Patricia González Diaz, a University of Havana marine biologist whose research focuses on this coast.

She cites Batabano, a city of 25,664 about 50 miles south of Havana that is experiencing the Cuba’s strongest effects of the rising sea level. “Almost two miles of coast has been lost compared to where it was 50 or 60 years ago,” González Diaz said.

Biologist Patrica González Diaz says rising sea levels are eroding Cuba’s southern coast (Photo by Ashley Somwaru).

A July 2015 article in the academic journal, “Noticen: Central American & Caribbean Affairs,” quoted experts from Cuba’s Agencia Nacional de Medio Ambiente saying this region could lose more than 1,000 square miles of land to rising sea levels by the middle of this century.

Lorenzo Brito, formerly in charge of Cuba’s coastal zone management program, attributed the land loss to natural processes as well as to global warming.

“Natural tectonic processes are causing the southern coast of Cuba to descend; this means that that the sea will advance onto the land up to three meters per year in the most vulnerable places of the Batabano municipality,” he said.

Rising sea levels, he added, are also due to “destruction of the mangrove vegetation.” Mangroves are nature’s first defense to the rising sea levels because their roots in shallow water act as a barrier.

While Cuba has 69 percent of the mangrove forests in the Caribbean, more than 30 percent are in a critical state, according to government forest scientist Reynier Samon.

The good news is that mangrove forests in Cuba are now expanding, covering more than 5  percent of the country, up from 4.8 percent in 1983, according to a 2015 article in Oceanography magazine.

“The Cuban government is doing a pretty good job on mangrove conservation…through its network of protected areas and fairly strong coastal zone management rules,” said Dan Whittle, who heads the Cuba Program for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Part of the effort comes from the knowledge that these forests serve as nurseries for many aquatic species, including lobsters, shrimp and sharks and thus are important to the future of coastal fishing.

Sea level rise and the consequent danger due to hurricanes is worrying the government to such an extent that it is trying to persuade people in this area to move to higher ground.

“The government is constructing new buildings inland for these people.” González Diaz said. However, as fishing is the principal livelihood, residents tend to stay put, according to a report by Inter Press service.

Experts are also worried that rising sea levels and other effects of global warming are causing a loss of biodiversity in the ocean.

Coral reefs are being bleached because of the rise of water temperatures, thus compromising their traditional role as a feeding ground for small fish, which are then consumed by larger fish, whose populations are endangered.

While 100 species of sharks inhabit Cuba’s waters, this population has been compromised by  shark finning and overfishing, said Alexei Ruiz, who works for the Cuba Sharks and Rays Conservation Project.

The government’s Marine Protected Areas, put in place to stop fisherman from killing marine life, have helped, but Ruiz said that not only is overfishing a problem for the marine life, but the rising sea level is endangering the sharks and their nurseries as well.

“Sharks need shallow water for their nurseries. The rising sea level will allow bigger animals to swim in these areas and reach these nurseries to feed on immature sharks,” Ruiz said.

In Havana, from the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta fortress, visitors can watch small fishing boats roll in the swells, then watch the swells crash over the Malecón. Vásquez, the architect, has watched first-hand the effects of living close to a rising sea level and thinks living in buildings so close to the ocean is a major issue.

“The waves are passing over the wall. When there are floods, sometimes we have boats navigating in the street to get around. This is very serious,” he said.