Clean Water in Havana Bay?

Regina Cano

The malecon seawall and entrance to Havana Bay. Photo: Caridad

A few days ago I made an unusual discovery. I sighted five pelicans flying over Havana’s bay searching for fish.

This is a surprising fact, quite to the contrary of what some might believe, because seeing seagulls had become a rare site there.

Havana Bay, a body of water that extends up to the Malecon seawall, has always offered passersby the odor of petroleum, of which one could find traces on the bordering walls and sidewalks.

In the bay there once could be seen the largest maritime fleet in the country, a reflection of the commerce fed by foreign cooperation, some investment and a few factories.

These days you no longer see the fleet; instead there are only a few small crafts, in addition to an occasional cruise liner. Yet because of this you’ll also notice that there’s less of the pollution made up of petroleum and other greases that used to form.

According to fishermen who line up along the seawall, this contamination used to build up into a layer that was several inches thick – some even estimate that it was a yard or more deep.

Fishing in this area meant taking a risk. Any accidental fall from the wall or deliberate swimming in the water would assure — in addition to possible drowning — ruining ones clothes due to the coating that petroleum would leave on anything it touched.

I found out that a few years ago an effort was made to clean the bay and that on its bottom laid “valuable metals.” These had been built up from the draining of solid and liquid wastes into the water by households and industries, a practice that goes back to the colonial epoch.

At one period in Havana’s history it was customary to pour waste into the bay both directly and indirectly (through any one of the three rivers that flow into it). This waste came from ships that were docked there, an adjacent refinery, residents along its banks and various slaughterhouses. People even say that dead slaves used to be thrown into the water to save on the costs of burials.

According to what I’ve been told, research aimed at how to clean the bay had been conducted since the 19th century, but only starting in the 1980’s were concrete actions taken to eliminate or reduce everything that contaminates it: hydrocarbons, fecal matter, greases and urban garbage.

Despite this, its pollution level continues to be high and the water quality continues causing severe damage to the bay’s aquatic ecosystem. All of this poses risks to the local population and negative impacts on tourism and the economy, since people continue to dump waste in it daily.

The fact that pelicans are taking a risk on Havana Bay clearly shows that these birds can now sight fish through the water. Unquestionably the bay’s cleaning and recovery could not be postponed forever, because Havanans might otherwise lose one of the most beautiful marine landscapes in the city.