“All You Can Catch in the Almendares River is a Good Infection”
14ymedio, Yosmany Mayeta Labrada, Havana, 28 March 2017 — The stench
fills the air and permeates the clothes of El Fanguito residents near
the Almendares River. Those who live there carry that stink everywhere,
it gets into your nose and into your pores. The main river flowing
through Havana barely shows any signs of recovery despite several
environmental projects that are trying to rescue it from pollution and
Gonzalo once lived from fishing in the vicinity of this river, which the
natives called Casiguaguas and which gave its current name to one of the
country’s most famous baseball teams. The Almendares has been a part of
the old man’s life from the time he gets up in the morning until he lies
down at night. All his memories begin and end in its waters.
A resident of El Fanguito neighborhood for more than 70 years, Gonzalo
recalls the crystalline channel that he knew as a child. In those waters
he fished with his friends, dived in to escape the heat, looked for
small treasures of stone or metal in its depths. But these are old
stories and only exist in the memories of the oldest residents.
A study published in 2005 by the Ministry of Science, Technology and
Environment (CITMA) warned that the main channel of the river was in a
“critical hygienic and health situation.” The report drafted by
specialists at the Higher Institutes of Technologies and Applied
Sciences documented, at that time, 70 sources that dumped hazardous
waste into its waters with “high levels of organic and inorganic
contaminants, among them toxic substances such as heavy metals.”
The river bank has been systematically stripped of trees and in the last
decades some 17 dams and reservoirs have been created in its
tributaries. Another CITMA study determined that 80% of the
contamination came from organic domestic waste and that some 200 liters
of sewage flows into the river every second.
“The only thing that can be fished here is a good infection,” Gonzalo
mocks as he points to those still, dark waters that approach his modest
home. On the shore floats a mass composed mostly of plastic bottles and
bags, while the surface is lit up in many areas due to hydrocarbon spillage.
Domestic and industrial waste has seriously damaged the Almendares’s
biodiversity, according to CITMA. Lorenzo Rodriguez Betancourt, a CITMA
specialist, told the official press that the cleaning of the basin was
“an immediate mission, but very complex at the same time, because it
requires a major investment of capital and the creation of awareness in
the residents living close to the area.”
Among the measures taken by the government is the closure of the two
beer breweries, the Tropical and the Polar, which dumped part of their
waste into the water, and also replacing the technology of the Mario
Fortuny Gas plant and the Coppelia Ice Cream plant. Several nearby
facilities that produced construction materials were dismantled.
Authorities point to urban settlements as one of the main sources of
pollution, but residents of El Fanguito defend themselves. “This
neighborhood does not have a sewer,” says Rosa, a retired teacher who
settled in the area two decades ago. “We paid the bills for water and
electricity but outside that we have been forgotten by everyone,” she says.
Every day, the woman takes care of her bodily needs in a can that she
empties at night in a nearby mound. The place is full of debris and a
truck rarely comes to pick it up. Legends abound about crocodiles and
enormous catfish known as claria that swallow everything in their
path. At night, families prefer to stay indoors and one of the first
lessons they teach their children is “don’t swim in the river.”
Rosa was filled with hopes a decade ago when a project led by then Vice
President Carlos Lage was heralded as the solution for the slum. The
project included the construction of new houses, the asphalting of
streets and even several playgrounds for children in the area. But the
idea never moved past the planning stage and Lage was soon ousted.
Instead of improvements, the neighborhood has continued to grow, chaotic
and impoverished. More than two hundred houses dot the banks of the
river, cramped and flimsy. The police avoid going into the area and on
rainy days everything takes on the color of mud.
Some initiatives focus momentary attention on the problem, such as the
recently concluded Casiguaguas River Festival, which, under the motto
“For Cleaner Water,” brought together various social actors and
institutions interested in environmental action. But after the headlines
in the press and the TV reports, the sewage took over once again.
For Armando Hernández López, representative of the National Sports and
Recreation Institute (INDER), who gave a lecture at the second River
Festival, many communities on the bank have “poor housing, overcrowding,
precarious sanitation, low educational levels, school dropouts and
alcoholism, where in spite of the talks carried out by different
sectors, the sanitary and hygienic conditions become more acute.”
Clara María Kindelán, a specialist at the Provincial Center for Hygiene
and Epidemiology, believes that the main actions should be taken in
communities and work centers. The state of the river does not yet allow
“sanitation activities where participants have contact with water.
Decontaminating the Almendares River will be our main challenge in the
coming years,” she says.
A representative of CITMA in the capital said that the pollutants have
been reduced, but that there are still more than 50. The official adds
to the list sources of waste that have been closed, including “two paper
mills and a rubber company.” Although the latter, she clarified, has
begun to be readied to reopen, “by a political decision.”
For the president of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution at
19th and Rio Streets in El Fanguito, the urgency is to move from words
to deeds. “All they do is talk to us about eliminating the sewage that
goes into to the river, but nobody is in charge of building or helping
to build a good sewer.” The resident says that there have been “angry
outbursts” in the community because the children “play around these waters.”
Meanwhile, the elderly Gonzalo no longer registers the stench that
permeates his house and his skin. He looks at the river of his childhood
as a convalescent relative that needs urgent therapy. He has lost the
illusion of ever swimming in its waters again someday.
Source: “All You Can Catch in the Almendares River is a Good Infection”
– Translating Cuba –