Cubanet.org, Ernesto Perez Chang, Havana, 23 July 2015 – Although they have not been properly disclosed, in spite of their great importance, numerous studies carried out repeatedly by teams of Cuban scientists have raised the alarm about the critical state of Cuba’s main aquifers.
The detection of high levels of lead and other heavy metals harmful to human health in lakes and reservoirs intended for human use and for work related to agriculture and fisheries suggest that this could be one of the main causes for the increase among the Cuban population of cancer and other illnesses related to prolonged exposure to toxic substances.
While the phenomenon afflicts all the country’s provinces, Havana is the region most affected because, first, it is surrounded by several landfills capable of leaking highly toxic elements into underground waters that feed sources destined to supply the capital; and, second, most industries do not comply with international norms for the treatment of wastes and the filtering of harmful gas emissions, and they even discharge wastes directly into river basins like the Almendares, which crosses the capital and whose waters are used on farmlands.
A study published in 2013 conducted by a team of specialists from the Laboratory of Environmental Analysis, part of Cuba’s Higher Institute of Applied Technologies and Sciences, reported the levels of highly toxic substances in the soils of and produce grown on 17 farms dedicated to urban agriculture, all located within two kilometers of the 100th Street landfill to the west of the capital.
According to the research, the soil of half the farms exceeded the ranges at which heavy metals, like lead, are usually found in Cuban agricultural soils, while a high percentage exceeded levels considered toxic according to some international standards. Similarly, 12.5 per cent of the vegetable samples collected exceeded the maximum permissible limits of this contaminant in foods intended for human consumption established by Cuban regulation NC 493 of 2006.
One of the areas that most worries those who are familiar with this phenomenon, about which nothing is said in the official press outlets, is the Ejercito Rebelde dam, built in 1976 south of the capital and considered one of the largest stores of “potable water” in the western region.
Surrounded by highly polluting industries like the steelmaker Antillana de Acero and giant dumps like Cotorro, the lake has been singled out by several scientific groups as a danger to human health since analyses of its sediments as well as of its flora and fauna have revealed lethal concentrations of heavy metals and other harmful substances.
In spite of the released warnings – almost always by digital academic publications of limited circulation – state fishing cooperatives that sell their products in the capital’s markets continue to operate there, while the regional authorities do very little to prevent the area’s inhabitants from coming to fish, swim or wash cars at the banks of the reservoir.
The oil stains and countless accumulations of rubbish that surround the dam speak for themselves of the government’s lack of control and the ignorance of the people about the danger to which they are exposed.
A scientific study from 2005 had already detected high levels of lead, zinc, cadmium and copper in the so-called “Almendares-Vento” basin as well as at the Ejercito Rebelde dam.
In its report, the team of analysts from Cuba’s Higher Institute of Applied Technologies and Sciences explained that such levels of contamination were due, in large measure, “to inadequate hygienic-sanitary coverage and industrialization without regard to protective measures for the environment.”
In order to have an idea of how terrible it could be now as well as in the future just for Havana, the Almendares-Vento watershed (which also includes the Ejercito Rebelde dam), provides almost half of all the potable water that the city’s populace consumes and a good part of its food. The heavy metals are extremely toxic even in relatively low concentrations, they are not biodegradable, and, to the contrary, they accumulate through the food chain.
To understand the gravity of the situation – both because of the discharged contaminants in our waters and the authorities’ willingness to conceal or disinterest in the matter – it suffices to refer to the body of research that, although carried out by Cuban institutions and experts, almost exclusively circulates outside of the island in foreign digital scientific media, while domestic publications keep their distance from what already constitutes a real silent tragedy.
Tables and info-graphics from several studies of the aquifers of Havana and the San Juan and Cobre rivers in Santiago de Cuba, among others, show the accumulation levels of heavy metals comparable to heavily industrialized areas of Europe. Chemical contaminants have also been found in species captured in the Guancanayabo Gulf and at the Hanabanilla dam in Villa Clara. Investigations by the Metallurgical Mining Institute of Holguin also have detected elevated concentrations of sulfates, nickel, chromium, manganese and iron in the groundwater of Moa.
Translated by MLK