Abrupt Shift from Drought to Flooding in Central Cuba
By Ivet González
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
"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
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
"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.