Resiliencia Costera: natural solutions to protect Cuba’s people and coastline
When Hurricane Irma made landfall in Cuba in 2017 it was the first category 5 hurricane to hit the island in nearly 100 years. After a two-day battering from 200 km/hour winds, the storm left behind ten dead, thousands of wrecked homes and nearly half a billion euros’ worth of damage - mostly from coastal flooding. Parts of the capital, Havana, were left under waist-deep water. But the most extensive damage was on the north coast, where dozens of luxury holiday resorts are located.
Cuba - and its lucrative tourism industry - is increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events and sea level rise. Up to one million people living in coastal settlements are predicted to become climate refugees by the end of this century. Faced with this challenge, Resiliencia Costera (‘coastal resilience’) is a new three-year, four million euro initiative funded by GCCA+, the EU’s flagship climate change programme, which aims to strengthen Cuba’s ability to cope with the worst impacts.
“Resilience means the ability of ecosystems and organisms to adapt to vulnerabilities or changes in the environment. We aim to build resilience in Cuba through natural solutions in vulnerable coastal areas. Natural solutions include the rehabilitation of coastal marine ecosystems.”
- says Dr Santos Orlando Cubillas, Director ofResiliencia Costera.
Nature-based solutions - also known as ecosystem-based adaptation - is increasingly recognised as an important weapon in the fight against climate change. Resiliencia Costera will focus on the Sabana-Camagüey archipelago, covering the fifteen coastal municipalities with a combined population of around 600,925 people. According to UNDP - the EU’s implementing partner on the project - the area, which covers a UNESCO world heritage site, is a “mosaic of sensitive marine environments including sandy beaches, seagrass beds, coral reefs and cays); mangrove swamps and forested dune systems; inshore lagoons and wetlands, and other coastal habitats of the adjacent Cuban mainland.”
“Coastal biodiversity such as coral reefs, sea grass beds and mangroves promotes economic, social and cultural development. They are important for Cuba’s future resilience. Sea levels are rising, but we have to find a way to prevent those communities from suffering permanent damage. It’s not just flooding - the intrusion of salt water is damaging fresh water aquifers and farm land.”
“Cuba takes a holistic approach to coastal adaptation. Coral reefs and seagrass beds can reduce flood risk and the force of waves reaching shore, which in turn lessens erosion. Mangroves and swamp forests provide the next line of defence against damaging winds and waves” she says.
However, she points out, coastal biodiversity is under threat from sewage dumping, over-fishing and mangrove forest destruction.
Dr Maritza García, President of Cuba’s Environment Agency, says the island’s natural defences have been neglected for too long.
“Economic development, especially tourist activity, has taken its toll over many years,” she says. “By restoring the ecosystem and returning it to its former state, the people who live in those areas will be better prepared and as far as possible they will be able to remain in their fishing communities.”
Resiliencia Costera will also help support Tarea Vida (‘Project Life’), a 100-year plan to combat climate change adopted by Cuba in 2018. Among other measures, the plan bans the construction of new homes in vulnerable coastal zones, mandates relocating inhabitants away from threatened, aims to move crop production away from saltwater-contaminated areas and will restore degraded habitat to build up coastal defences.
“The GCCA+ project directly supports the implementation of Tarea Vida, particularly by increasing resilience in coastal areas highly threatened by sea level rise and by focusing on implementing natural solutions for adaptation to climate change,” says Maribel Gutiérrez, the UNDP Resident Representative in Cuba. As the GCCA+’s project implementor in Cuba, UNDP will also focus on food security, renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well as working with scientists and risk experts to strengthen disaster planning and early warning systems.
However, moving entire coastal communities to higher ground inland is not without its challenges. “We are a coastal country and our communities depend a lot on the cultural and social ties to the coast,” says Dr Odalis Goicochea, Director of Environment at Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment. “Moving people is extremely complex, because of the impacts at both individual and community level. Climate change is breaking their relationship with the coast.”