14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, Havana, 28 March 2017 — The stench fills the air and permeates the clothes of El Fanguito residents near the Almendares River. Those who live there carry that stink everywhere, it gets into your nose and into your pores. The main river flowing through Havana barely shows any signs of recovery despite several environmental projects that are trying to rescue it from pollution and sluggishness.
Gonzalo once lived from fishing in the vicinity of this river, which the natives called Casiguaguas and which gave its current name to one of the country’s most famous baseball teams. The Almendares has been a part of the old man’s life from the time he gets up in the morning until he lies down at night. All his memories begin and end in its waters.
A resident of El Fanguito neighborhood for more than 70 years, Gonzalo recalls the crystalline channel that he knew as a child. In those waters he fished with his friends, dived in to escape the heat, looked for small treasures of stone or metal in its depths. But these are old stories and only exist in the memories of the oldest residents.
A study published in 2005 by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA) warned that the main channel of the river was in a “critical hygienic and health situation.” The report drafted by specialists at the Higher Institutes of Technologies and Applied Sciences documented, at that time, 70 sources that dumped hazardous waste into its waters with “high levels of organic and inorganic contaminants, among them toxic substances such as heavy metals.”
The river bank has been systematically stripped from trees and in the last decades some 17 dams and reservoirs have been created in its tributaries
The river bank has been systematically stripped of trees and in the last decades some 17 dams and reservoirs have been created in its tributaries. Another CITMA study determined that 80% of the contamination came from organic domestic waste and that some 200 liters of sewage flows into the river every second.
“The only thing that can be fished here is a good infection,” Gonzalo mocks as he points to those still, dark waters that approach his modest home. On the shore floats a mass composed mostly of plastic bottles and bags, while the surface is lit up in many areas due to hydrocarbon spillage.
Domestic and industrial waste has seriously damaged the Almendares’s biodiversity, according to CITMA. Lorenzo Rodriguez Betancourt, a CITMA specialist, told the official press that the cleaning of the basin was “an immediate mission, but very complex at the same time, because it requires a major investment of capital and the creation of awareness in the residents living close to the area.”
Among the measures taken by the government is the closure of the two beer breweries, the Tropical and the Polar, which dumped part of their waste into the water, and also replacing the technology of the Mario Fortuny Gas plant and the Coppelia Ice Cream plant. Several nearby facilities that produced construction materials were dismantled.
Authorities point to urban settlements as one of the main sources of pollution, but residents of El Fanguito defend themselves. “This neighborhood does not have a sewer,” says Rosa, a retired teacher who settled in the area two decades ago. “We paid the bills for water and electricity but outside that we have been forgotten by everyone,” she says.
Every day, the woman takes care of her bodily needs in a can that she empties at night in a nearby mound. The place is full of debris and a truck rarely comes to pick it up. Legends abound about crocodiles and enormous catfish known as claria that swallow everything in their path. At night, families prefer to stay indoors and one of the first lessons they teach their children is “don’t swim in the river.”
Rosa was filled with hopes a decade ago when a project led by then Vice President Carlos Lage was heralded as the solution for the slum. The project included the construction of new houses, the asphalting of streets and even several playgrounds for children in the area. But the idea never moved past the planning stage and Lage was soon ousted.
Instead of improvements, the neighborhood has continued to grow, chaotic and impoverished. More than two hundred houses dot the banks of the river, cramped and flimsy. The police avoid going into the area and on rainy days everything takes on the color of mud.
Some initiatives focus momentary attention on the problem, such as the recently concluded Casiguaguas River Festival, which, under the motto “For Cleaner Water,” brought together various social actors and institutions interested in environmental action. But after the headlines in the press and the TV reports, the sewage took over once again.
For Armando Hernández López, representative of the National Sports and Recreation Institute (INDER), who gave a lecture at the second River Festival, many communities on the bank have “poor housing, overcrowding, precarious sanitation, low educational levels, school dropouts and alcoholism, where in spite of the talks carried out by different sectors, the sanitary and hygienic conditions become more acute.”
Clara María Kindelán, a specialist at the Provincial Center for Hygiene and Epidemiology, believes that the main actions should be taken in communities and work centers
Clara María Kindelán, a specialist at the Provincial Center for Hygiene and Epidemiology, believes that the main actions should be taken in communities and work centers. The state of the river does not yet allow “sanitation activities where participants have contact with water. Decontaminating the Almendares River will be our main challenge in the coming years,” she says.
A representative of CITMA in the capital said that the pollutants have been reduced, but that there are still more than 50. The official adds to the list sources of waste that have been closed, including “two paper mills and a rubber company.” Although the latter, she clarified, has begun to be readied to reopen, “by a political decision.”
For the president of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution at 19th and Rio Streets in El Fanguito, the urgency is to move from words to deeds. “All they do is talk to us about eliminating the sewage that goes into to the river, but nobody is in charge of building or helping to build a good sewer.” The resident says that there have been “angry outbursts” in the community because the children “play around these waters.”
Meanwhile, the elderly Gonzalo no longer registers the stench that permeates his house and his skin. He looks at the river of his childhood as a convalescent relative that needs urgent therapy. He has lost the illusion of ever swimming in its waters again someday.