The flight of pelicans and other fish-eating birds over Havana Bay announces the gradual return of life to these waters after so many years of being mercilessly battered by toxic waste from surrounding vessels and industries that made it one of the most contaminated sites in Cuba.
This deplorable situation began to change with the determination of Cuban authorities to clean up the maritime gateway to the capital that led to the establishment, on June 15, 1998, of the State Working Group for Integrated Environmental Management and Sustainable Development of Havana Bay, its Catchment Area and the Interacting Coastal Area.
The area managed by this group, known as GTE - BAHÍA HABANA, is some 85km2 and its boundaries include, in whole or in part, the territories of ten of the capital's fifteen municipalities, with a population of some 910,000 inhabitants.
According to Yosvany A. Simón Gil, director of Prevention and Rehabilitation at GTE-BAHÍA HABANA, the creation of this organization was the first action among many of the Cuban government in line with the Heavily Polluted Bays of the Caribbean project. This project, coming under the Global Environment Facility-United Nations Development Program (GEF-UNDP), includes 21 recommendations presented by specialists intended to halt and reverse the process of environmental degradation to this important ecosystem.
Simón Gil told Cubaplus that among these recommendations, all of which are essential elements of GTE - BAHÍA HABANA's operational strategy, the key turning point is the closure of the large industrial plants which were significant sources of chemical and organic pollution. Similarly, making other such industrial centres convert their current technologies to others that are more productive and less environmentally aggressive is also a main factor.
Although Gil admitted that he could not yet declare that Havana Bay was decontaminated, what's clear is that they have made major strides in that direction, judging from data obtained by monitoring processes carried out in this area by the Center for Environmental Management of Bays and Coasts (CIMAB for its acronym in Spanish) four times a year. According to these CIMAB reports, from 1998 to the present there has been a 58% reduction of pollutants spilling into the bay. Today, 81.5 tons less of organic material are dumped into the bay than in 1998, which in the opinion of specialists has contributed to expanding the threshold of life in this ecosystem by increasing levels of dissolved oxygen in the waters.
Efforts to improve the quality of the surface water in the bay continue to be in the hands of the Maritime Harbour Sanitation Company (SAMARP for its Spanish acronym), which also provides collection services of solid waste and oleaginous for vessels within the harbour, in compliance with the MARPOL 73/78 International Convention, thus preventing the waste from being discharged into the Havana Bay.
At the same time, Corporate Environmental Management inspectors systematically monitor the implementation of measures to eliminate or reduce harmful actions from the 106 polluting sources that still dump their wastes into the water.
In the opinion of Simón Gil, one of the essential components of this environmental sanitation process is education of the surrounding population about protecting and caring for the environment. “Towards that end, we are working on preparing community advocates and activists who are able to provide, within their areas of operation, the techniques and knowledge required to move the project forward, and implement detailed environmental actions in order to make local and regional impact”, added the official in statements to Cubaplus.
One of the community programs, called “Friends of the Bay”, is directed towards a group of about 300 schools at all levels of education. This work is being developed in close collaboration with the Provincial Department of Education.
Another aspect of the plan is to utilize the benefits of an accompanying reforestation project. Forests, planted in strips along the bay, will aid in regulating water flow from tributary rivers, and whose major role is to stimulate and protect the urban environment of the basin.
The work of environmental rehabilitation set out by GTE - BAHÍA HABANA is assisted by a number of different countries and international organizations through collaboration agreements and partnerships on specific projects. Standing out among these efforts is the start-up of a wastewater treatment plant in the mouth of the Luyanó River, the study of a master plan for handling the sewage system and storm water from the bay and its tributary basin, equipment for cleaning the waters, and the training of technical personnel.