HAVANA, May 30 2012 (IPS) – The sudden shift from drought to heavy rainfall that caused severe flooding in central Cuba drove home to the authorities the need to redesign preparedness and prevention plans for climate-related emergencies.
“These unusually heavy rains in such a short period of time made it necessary for us to update our plans and modify procedures to adapt to climate change-related phenomena,” said Inés María Chapman, president of the National Institute of Water Resources (INRH).
The INRH’s responsibilities include acting in a timely manner, with foresight, and the constant monitoring of every dam and reservoir in Cuba.
For example, Chapman described the measures taken to keep the Zaza reservoir and others in the central province of Sancti Spíritus stable as “a real-time exercise in how to act in the face of weather events.”
During a tour of the Zaza reservoir, the largest man-made reservoir on the island, the official pointed out that just a few days ago, INRH experts were discussing the possible need to accelerate the well-drilling programme in order to keep up rice production.
The problem was the low level of water in the reservoir, because the forecasts indicated that the drought would continue over the next few months. But the situation changed abruptly, and in less than 48 hours, the Zaza reservoir received more than 800 million cubic metres of water.
Official sources say the danger presented by the reservoir has been documented in the civil defence system’s contingency plans since a storm filled it in an unexpectedly short time in June 1972, while it was still being built, causing severe cracks.
But never before had the reservoir filled up as quickly as it did from Wednesday May 23 to Friday May 25. Last week’s rains made this the rainiest month in the history of the region, with 500 mm of accumulated rainfall – more than 300 percent of the monthly median.
Although May marks the start of the rainy season in Cuba, which runs through October, this month actually ended with a major rainfall deficit on a national level, far below the totals registered in the same month in 1995, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2005 and 2008, according to sources at the Meteorology Institute’s Forecast Centre.
The forecast for this month was for near normal precipitation in all of the country’s regions. And in the case of central Cuba, estimates ranged from 135 to 265 mm – far below the total accumulated after last week’s heavy rains.
Scientists say the effects of climate change will include a rise in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. The biggest threats to Caribbean island nations like Cuba are hurricanes, drought, heavy rainfall and a rise in the sea level.
Some 6,000 people were urgently evacuated from areas near the Zaza reservoir last week due to the need to open the floodgates when the reservoir’s capacity was exceeded.
The local press reported that the bodies of two men who had been reported missing were found on Saturday May 26: French citizen Alain Manaud and Silvestre Fortún of Cuba, whose car was swept away when the Santa Lucía river flooded in the municipality of Cabaiguán.
“A lot more could have happened,” Marta Pérez, a homemaker who lives in the city of Yaguajay in the province of Sancti Spíritus, told IPS by phone. “In my house, the water rose more than a metre, but that was the least of our problems. I have family near the Zaza reservoir and I didn’t stop worrying until I knew they were safe.”
When she woke up on Thursday May 24, Pérez found that the water was up to her knees because the Máximo river had flooded its banks.
The flooding occurred less than a week after the “Meteoro” emergency preparedness and evacuation drills that are organised every year in Cuba by the civil defence system and other authorities, based on the specific vulnerabilities faced in each region.
Last week, the civil defence system kicked into action again when rivers and reservoirs overflowed their banks, flooding sugar cane and other crops, damaging bridges and railways, and cutting off land communications between western and eastern Cuba.
Preliminary damage assessment
A preliminary damage assessment presented by the provincial defence council of Sancti Spíritus includes the collapse of 47 homes and damage to another 1,156 – at a time when the country is still recovering from the devastation caused by hurricanes Ike, Gustav and Paloma in 2008.
Added to this is the damage to more than 3,350 hectares of crops and 5,700 urban farming lots, as well as recently planted sugar cane and 1,400 hectares of rice that are in need of draining. Fish farming, beekeeping and dairy production were also affected.
Although more than 20,000 head of cattle were taken to safe areas, the preliminary reports indicate that at least 100 died of cold.
In the city of Trinidad, a popular tourist destination, damage was caused to the channel of the San Juan de Letrán river, causing serious problems in the water supply system. The authorities said reparations depend on access to difficult-to-reach areas.
José Ramón Monteagudo, president of the provincial defence council, called for recovery work to begin, and for vital services like electricity to be restored. He also issued an alert on hygiene and sanitation.
“We need to improve the rational use of water to ensure local supplies and cover the needs of agriculture and industry,” said the president of the INRH, noting that despite the rainfall in the central region, drought conditions continued to prevail in the rest of the country.
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