Adaptation, an irreversible need

Climate change affects the entire Caribbean region in terms of the rise in sea level, saline intrusion and drought, researcher Carlos Rodríguez Otero affirms.

Interview with Carlos Rodríguez Otero, researcher in territorial organisation and the environment of the Physical Planning Institute of Cuba.

A joint study by several scientific institutions, headed by the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry, warned that, due to the previewed increase in the average sea level because of  climate change, by 2050 a surface of 2,550 square kilometres of Cuban coast could be submerged. In 2100 that figure would rise to some 5,600 square kilometres.

In an interview with IPS, Carlos Rodríguez Otero, a researcher in territorial organisation and the environment of the governmental Physical Planning Institute (IPF), places at 577 the human settlements that could suffer the combined battering of that increase in ocean waters, the rise in sea level due to the waves and the associated emergence of hurricanes.

Of the 577 settlements indentified as vulnerable, 262 have a surface located at less than a metre above sea level, in the first kilometre of inland from the coastline. “They are the ones we are regarding as coastal settlements because of their sensitivity,” this being viewed as the degree in which a natural or human system is disrupted by climate alterations, Rodríguez Otero indicated.

Meanwhile, of those 262, a total of 122 can be affected in different ways just by the rise in sea level, with permanent losses of surface, buildings, networks and services. “Regulation and concrete adaptation measures have to be applied in these settlements,” he affirmed.

Which are the greatest challenges climate change imposes on the country in terms of adaptation?

Cuba is not an exception in terms of the processes of population concentration, which is characteristic worldwide. Data from the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI) from 2010 indicate that Cuba has a total population of 11,240,841 inhabitants, of which 92 percent live in a concentrated way on a total of 6,864 human settlements, according to the 2002 census, with diverse hierarchical categories. Only the other eight percent, that is, 800,000 inhabitants, live in a disperse way, though strongly linked to their lands and agricultural activities. The projections for 2030 establish a tendency toward the reduction of this number according to the current demographic characteristics.

Seventy-five percent of the current population is concentrated in urban human settlements. Nevertheless, the greatest impacts expected from the rise in the average sea level due to climate change will take place in rural human settlements characterised for their small dimensions, with less than 200 inhabitants, linked to fishing and summer recreation activities. In these cases, the constructive typologies of the homes are diverse and their resistance in the face of severe events like hurricanes is not appropriate, which generates their high vulnerability as they are weak installations and comprise a great deal of temporary installations, with no resident population.

Nowadays, in the first place, dealing step by step with all the human settlements that have current and future affectations is a great challenge. In the second place, that the people linked to them recognise and perceive the dangers to which they are exposed, that it be an aspect dominated by all of society and not just the technicians and the authorities. The third question of importance is being able to include the issue of adaptation to climate change as a current need, in view of the irreversibility of the processes set in motion by global actions, but with a demonstrated local incidence.

What should we understand by adaptation and what must be done in terms of urban planning?

Adapting, in a general sense, is to prepare for the conditions that the global climate processes are imposing on us, with the rising air temperature, the expansion of oceans, which causes the rise in the average sea level, the phenomena of drought or the increased intensity of hurricanes, just to cite some of those that have a direct incidence on the life of human beings.

In terms of urban planning, in the first place the urban regulations and territorial organisation that take into account the results of the studies carried out, contributing to procuring the use of the buildings historically located in areas susceptible to affectations, the reduction of the population densities in the most exposed areas, the recommendation of creating and promoting public spaces in these areas and reducing the risk elements in these areas, especially the emergency services. There are also the solutions of readjustment in the very locality, with the construction of buildings in situ on piles or platforms; another variant could be relocating the homes and service installations to safer places in the settlement itself, in general in higher areas or with better drainage.

The engineering protection measures should not be ruled out, like dikes, breakwaters, efficient drainage systems, among others, but which in general are much more expensive and justifiable in specific localities, due to the vital functions that have to be present there, like in ports, thermoelectric plants, etc. These costly works must be well endorsed, since in practice they can cause negative effects because of the damming of seawater if they are not well conceived according to the coastal morphology or don’t have sufficient drainage solutions for the return of the saltwater to the sea, as well as the freshwater generated by the rains.

Another means of adaptation can be through the use of more resistant construction materials, which ensure the permanence of the constructions in view of the simultaneous action of sea encroachments due to the effects of storms, strong winds and floods, these being basic aspects to avoid the damage to buildings.

Vital aspects in the process of adaptation include training, raising awareness and the organisation of all of society, which make it possible to perfect the mechanisms for the evacuation of the population and safeguarding economic and individual goods, in the face of intense storms like hurricanes, extratropical lows and very strong winds from the south, which cause disaster situations in human settlements built in very low-lying areas, with insufficient drainage.  

On occasions, what is most suitable is to regulate the growth of settlements located in the exposed areas, conceiving designs that contribute to the liberation toward public spaces of the areas of greatest exposure, the reduction of population concentration per hectare of the constructed areas, the systematic assessment of the change in the use of certain areas and installations in the buildings of the human settlements.

Decreasing vulnerability implies building with more resistant construction variants; it must be associated proactively (preventing and adapting) and preceding reactive actions, once the disaster occurs. Promoting prevention is a logical action to reduce the expected impact under the current conditions of climate variability, as well as on a longer term due to climate change.

Actions for improving the management of the mangrove forests should also be taken into account, since they are an important natural barrier in the coastal areas, a protection action against the rise in sea level as well as the inclemency generated by the passage of hurricanes. The same happens with coral reef barriers, which must be protected against inadequate human interventions. Meanwhile, the sand dunes must be protected in the face of any process of exploitation, according to their potential for recreation and tourism.

Whoever lives in coastal areas knows that the impact of a mass of water is much greater than the strong winds. There are buildings that are swept away by the mass of water; however, they withstand the force of the wind. What happens is that the hurricanes are better known for the force of their winds, to which the entire population is exposed, the one living inland as well as the one living in coastal areas, where there is a combination of these phenomena that makes them more vulnerable.

Should the cities be prepared for more intense hurricanes due to climate change?

Yes indeed, it is stated that the amount of hurricanes will not increase, but their intensity will. We always speak of category five because the studies are carried out based on those more powerful events, but they are not necessarily the most recurrent.

Among the many damages caused by the passage of a hurricane, the interruption of electricity service is especially inconvenient for the population. What steps are being taken regarding this?

In Old Havana the network is underground, but taking this to the entire city of 2.2 million inhabitants requires a major investment. For the time being there is no other alternative than to try to protect the open-air systems, strengthen them until other investments can be made. One of the most known issues in the cities is to select adequate species to plant and thus avoid that the fall of trees or parts of them affect these infrastructures and the services provided at times of so much need, like the following hours of recovery after the passage of a hurricane. A systematic work also has to be carried out in terms of pruning trees to avoid that they surpass the height of the electricity and telephone cables, but with the knowledge that their beneficial functions are not lost, such as shade, landscape, carbon absorption and the production of oxygen, among other benefits.

The trees in the cities have to be conserved, since the key impact of climate change – which is the rise in temperature – is intensified in the cities. The existing massive constructions, cement, asphalt, motorisation, industries, etc., generate an increase in temperature of more than three degrees in relation to the rural peripheral areas at present, which is why climate change superposes that situation and the conditions for human comfort are reduced. Open spaces, tree-lined areas, the types of grass, the colour of the buildings, among others, contribute to amortising that phenomenon by generating a cool atmosphere for a milieu totally transformed by human beings.

In part of the cities there are areas or pockets of heat, which are also due to the effects of the layout, the facilities for airing and air flows through their streets, all of these being elements that should be analysed, as well as the orientation of the buildings in relation to the regimen of breezes and the sun to which they are exposed by the country’s geographical location in a subtropical zone. All this is fundamental in the beneficial or unfavourable environment that is achieved for the inhabitants.

According to your research, where, which areas concentrate the greatest risks to be faced by climate change?

In Cuba, the greatest risks fall on the coastal areas, the recurrence of drought and the decrease in water volumes as a result of the annual precipitation regimen. In the case of drought, there is a tendency for them to be more frequent in the eastern area, where less economic development, lower quality of the soils, a deficit of underground water and desertification processes have historically existed. The severe dry period of 2003 to 2005 caused more than three billion pesos in losses. That is, almost a third of the losses left by the three hurricanes that hit our country in 2008, officially estimated at 10 billion dollars.

On the other hand, nature has given us the condition that a high percentage of our precipitations are linked to the close passage of hurricanes and tropical lows in the Western Caribbean. If there are no hurricanes we automatically have drought, first meteorological, afterward agricultural and hydraulic, with harmful effects for development. In fact, in the last four years the water reserves have greatly decreased and droughts have been felt in the country’s western region with severe damages to agriculture and the supply of water to the resident population, including the country’s capital, which depends on underground as well as surface water sources for its supply.

Would you say these problems are common in all the insular Caribbean?

In that entire region climate change has common effects in terms of more or less precipitations, the rise in the sea level, the saline intrusion and the drought processes that come together with some of the aforementioned. It is a group of very harmful effects and for which we have to be better prepared.

Do you consider Cuba is more advanced in terms of the capacity to face these problems?

I think so; we have the human resources, the capacity, experience and political will to devote resources to the investigation and implementation of solutions. That is, these factors place us in a privileged position to be able to deal with these issues, identify the problems and find the solutions we can aspire to as a developing country and with strong limitations of economic resources. Cuba is a referent in disaster reduction, with a high level of organisation of its Civil Defence, in which we all participate, and it is precisely that organisational ability, the existence of functioning and early warning systems, and of preparedness of all of society in the face of the extreme events of today, which gives us greater possibilities to face the challenge of adaptation in the face of the unequivocal process of climate change. (2012)

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