Chicago Tribune
September 25, 2007

In Cuba, a hard river to clean

But construction lags on a 'devil of a mess' in Havana

By Michael Martinez
Tribune correspondent


For 6 miles, the Luyano River wends past a panorama of Havana -- residences, businesses, industry -- before it spills into Havana Bay, one of the busiest but most polluted ports on the Caribbean.

Compared to the 156-mile Chicago River, the Luyano may seem like a stream, but it packs quite a punch on Havana's environment as the largest of three rivers feeding the capital's bay.

Now, after a decade of studies, the watershed's dirtiest river is receiving its first wastewater treatment plant, funded with $4 million from international partners and $20 million from Cuba's government, according to the international financing body Global Environment Facility.

The waterway is a case study in how Havana's growth has overwhelmed its century-old public water works, forcing the Luyano and other rivers to become dumping grounds, experts and officials say.

Since the late 1990s, Cuba has been cleaning up the bay through closures, relocations and renovations of 15 industries, officials say. Between 2000 and 2005, oxygen was up, and contaminants such as phosphorous, nitrogen and suspended solids were largely down, sometimes by more than half, GEF figures show.

Untreated sewage ravages bay

Still, tons of untreated sewage and contaminants flow annually through the Luyano, starkly evident earlier this month when rain rinsed the city's drains.

Ariel Castillo, who has lived the past 25 of his 31 years in a riverbank home, dreads such rainfall; it creates a foul odor in his neighborhood and an unnatural plume in the waterway.

"It's a devil of a mess," Castillo said.

Two-thirds of a mile away, crews are laying the foundations to a plant that will treat wastewater from 62,000 inhabitants, but they are behind schedule and experiencing millions of dollars in overruns, according to Cuban and United Nations Development Program officials.

Such inefficiencies have distressed interim leader Raul Castro.

For now, the unfolding plant, which also calls for more than 9 miles of new sewer lines, resembles a crater, half of a football field in size, with some concrete footings.

For all its ambitions to clean the river and ultimately help the Caribbean, the plant is just a drop in the bucket against the estimated $30 billion needed to modernize Havana's sewer system and leaky underground water lines, said geography professor Joseph Scarpaci of Virginia Tech, co-author of "Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis."

That estimate is based on his discovery of Soviet documents from the mid-1980s that calculated $10 billion to $15 billion was needed to modernize treatment of Havana's wastewater, most of which is now dumped in rivers and the sea, Scarpaci said.

In their early years, Chicago and Eastern Seaboard cities also dumped raw sewage into their open waters, Scarpaci noted.

"I salute the government, but the dollar amount they're talking about is insignificant when you look at the larger scope," Scarpaci said of the Luyano project. Cuban officials acknowledge the challenge.

Sewer system built in 1915

"The city's sewer system, built in 1915 and designed to manage the wastewater of an urban area that housed 300,000 inhabitants at the time, now functions with the same capacity for a population of approximately 1 million," the government newspaper Granma said.

With the Nico Lopez oil refinery also on its shore, Havana Bay is a daily dumping ground for 51.8 tons of organic matter and 12 tons each of hydrocarbons and suspended solids, said Eudel Cepero, research analyst in environmental science at Florida International University. He's also author of a draft environmental report to the university's "Havana and Its Landscapes" project, funded by southern Florida developers, which looks at potential renovation of Havana.

Like its counterparts in Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba, Havana Bay is notable for its shape: a narrow mouth with a bulbous harbor. While aesthetically alluring, the enclosure exacerbates pollution because nine days pass before water cycles out of the bay, Scarpaci said. As a result, a black ring resembling tar lines the sea walls.

As the second-largest watershed in the capital, Havana Bay is fed by the Luyano, Martin Perez and Arroyo Tadeo Rivers, which account for 35 percent of its contamination, according to Gricel Acosta, environment program analyst in Havana for the UN Development Program. Of the three, the Luyano is the filthiest, accounting for 90 percent of the tributaries' pollutants, she said.

For those who live and work along the Luyano, the plant's construction is welcome, but many doubt they will fish in it during their lifetimes.

Down the block, 20 families of squatters have been living for up to two decades on the riverbank in a shantytown nicknamed the Banana Plantation for the surrounding dense foliage.

Its residents hold out hope for the river and won't move. One longtime resident, a laborer, displayed recent fines exceeding $40 recently; his average monthly salary is about $15.

"I like the tranquility here, aside from the cars" passing on the busy Via Blanca corridor, said the laborer, asking for anonymity out of fear that authorities will force him to move.