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Crocodiles in Cuba's Ciénaga de Zapata.
Credit: J. Haedo
Climate Danger Lurks for Cuban Wetland
By Patricia Grogg, special to Tierramérica

Residents of the Cuban wetland Ciénaga de Zapata face the challenge of changing an apparent inevitability: the disappearance of the marsh as a result of global warming.

CIÉNAGA DE ZAPATA, Cuba, May 5 (Tierramérica).- If the worst outcomes predicted for climate change impacts in Cuba become reality, a large portion of the Ciénaga de Zapata, the largest and best preserved wetland of the insular Caribbean, could disappear by the second half of this century.

The Ciénaga de Zapata provides habitat for birds that are only found in Cuba, like the Zapata wren (Ferminia cerverai), sparrow (Torreornis inexpectata) and rail (Cyanolimnas cerverai), among others. It is estimated that this marsh holds 65 percent of Cuba's birdlife, in addition to 1,000 plant species.

This region is dominated by low plains, marshes and semi-swampland, with savannah vegetation. It holds forests, rivers and lakes, as well as 70 kilometers of caves in which semicircular freshwater lagoons have formed, known in Spanish as "cenotes".

The people who live less than 40 meters from the coast are not very willing to renounce the pleasure of being lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves. "People are resistant to leaving. They like to live near the sea," acknowledges Luis Lazo, delegate from the citizen commission of Caletón, a neighborhood near the water, where waves nearly reach the patios of the houses.

According to Lazo, the danger is latent because so far this century it has survived various tropical cyclones have thrashed this vast municipality of Matanzas province covering 4,520 square kilometers and with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants.

The worst was Hurricane Michelle, which hit on Nov. 4, 2001, with winds of 210 km/hour. "We expected that the water would penetrate up to nine kilometers inland from Michelle's impact. That was not the case, though many houses were destroyed and only the evacuation of families prevented human losses," Lazo said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

Some experts believe the greater intensity of the hurricanes is a consequence of global climate change. "The ocean is warmer than before, and therefore more propitious for tropical cyclones to form and intensify," says Tomás Gutiérrez, director general of the Cuban Institute of Meteorology.

Pablo Bouza, director of the Ciénaga de Zapata National Park, warns that the combination of hurricanes and drought can lead to more fires, as it did in 2007 with fires lasting 45 days and causing serious damage to 5,000 hectares, 70 percent forest.

"The hurricanes leave a lot of accumulated vegetation on the ground, which when it dries from the lack of rain, is converted into fuel for the flames. The fire spreads quickly when the marsh is dry," said Bouza. Experts are studying prevention strategies to minimize the effects of fire under these new circumstances.

Pressed by a threat that is more or less imminent, environmentalists and technicians are carrying out an offensive to raise awareness and inform citizens and authorities in the region about climate change and its consequences.

"Last year we held three workshops with the participation of community members and representatives of different economic and social sectors. That way we could design a project with the main problems and the possible actions we should develop," said environmental management expert Leyaní Caballero.

Although the climate change adaptation strategy is still being elaborated and has not yet been made public, part of the action plan is being implemented. "The people don't realize how vulnerable they are to this problem, nor do they know what they should do. That's why this year we are bringing the discussion to the neighborhoods," she said.

The showing of the film "Climate Change: The Challenge Continues", or presentations by experts precede the discussions of each "barrio-debate". The idea, says Caballero, is for the people to perceive the risk and to understand that the marsh needs to be managed in a rational and sustainable way. "That is why it is essential to train people."

According to scientific projections, the sea level of the Cuban archipelago could rise eight to 44 centimeters by 2050, or 20 to 95 cm by 2100. Water that high would reduce the land area of Ciénaga de Zapata by one-fifth.

A sea level rise of just 30 cm would also threaten freshwater sources because the entry of saltwater would contaminate the zone's reserves, as well as causing great harm to the flora and fauna.

The average temperatures would also see significant increases, intensifying droughts and making the climate drier in general, with notable effects on the ecosystem, which was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 2000 and an internationally important wetland under the Ramsar convention in 2001.

* IPS Correspondent.

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