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    El Mar Se Comió Todo: On the Shrinking of Cuba
    Visiting climate refugees in a disappearing Cuba.

    October 23, 2005, began as a calm day in Dilcia Edreida Alarcón’s
    hometown—Playa Rosario, a fishing village just south of Havana. But
    around 6 p.m., she noticed the waves. They were huge, and getting
    bigger—up to four meters high—breaking closer and closer to her
    beachfront home. The radio alert she had been waiting for came: Wilma
    was furiously churning toward Cuba’s south coast, the most intense
    hurricane ever recorded over the Atlantic.

    As the waves pounded the shore, Alarcón and her neighbors gathered
    everything they could, and fled. Officials from the ministry of civil
    defense took them to an inland shelter to wait the storm out.

    This was the most active hurricane season ever recorded over the
    Atlantic: Katrina had blasted through New Orleans just two months
    before, and Wilma was the fifth in a series of record-breaking storms
    that caused nearly 1,700 deaths and $100 billion in damages in the
    United States alone. Rosario residents had weathered many storms over
    the years, and been evacuated often. After each hurricane, they returned
    to re-build their ravaged homes. But this time was different. Cuban land
    use officials knew Playa Rosario was doomed. The sea was rising, and
    Rosario was built on sinking land. It would be completely submerged by
    2050, and the shoreline was already retreating as much as three feet per
    year. Every hurricane scraped more dirt and sand from the crumbling
    shoreline, and, in the years to come, the waters would keep rising
    higher and the storms would keep getting stronger.

    After the hurricane, Alarcón and her neighbors were told they couldn’t
    return to what was left of the town (only three of the 113 homes were
    still standing) and instead were transferred to a temporary shelter,
    where many have remained for the past 10 years.

    Cuba is on a tectonic seesaw, much of its north coast rising while the
    south coast beneath Rosario subsides.

    Today, all that’s left of Playa Rosario are the foundations of homes,
    now crumbling into the sea. The main road is completely submerged, and
    spring water bubbles up through the remains of an old patio. Skeletal
    house remnants face the sea, contemplating the water’s edge as they are
    slowly engulfed: one and a half feet deeper every year. It’s a ghost
    town. The house where Alarcón’s three sons were born is underwater, and
    now she lives in government housing eight miles inland. “El mar se comió
    todo,” she says. The ocean ate everything.

    Playa Rosario’s heyday was Alarcón’s youth. The town was always a humble
    place, just a handful of simple homes on the beach, but in the 1960s
    Cuban tourists would visit by the busload. They came to fish, play, and
    cure their ailments by taking the waters—a sulfur-rich underground
    spring flowed into the sea and bubbled up through the mud. Doctors would
    prescribe baths at Rosario for rashes and asthma. Residents fished for
    shrimp and lobster and bartered for produce with farmers in the
    surrounding countryside. Only a few hundred people lived there but the
    town’s impact on the coastline was soon apparent. They built houses and
    a road right on the beach, at the expense of the coastal mangroves. They
    drained the aquifer, and saltwater from the sea soon crept in to the
    fresh natural water they were so proud of. Without the mangrove barrier,
    hurricanes and waves ate away at the coast, which was already low. The
    town was only about 10 inches above sea level, and even without the
    constant erosion, the whole coast was always slightly sinking—Cuba is on
    a tectonic seesaw, much of its north coast rising while the south coast
    beneath Rosario subsides.

    For 20 years, Cuban scientists have watched the waters rise. Cuba is
    shrinking, and there’s nothing they can do but adapt.

    The people of Rosario, developing un-checked, did plenty of damage. But
    their efforts alone weren’t enough to drown the beachside community.
    Neither was the sinking land. But Cuban scientists, armed with a
    climate-change risk assessment, realized the coastal road, destroyed
    mangroves, depleted aquifer, and sinking land would have no chance
    against the rising seas. “I understand that re-location strategies are
    painful for the population,” Juan Llanes Regueiro, a professor at the
    University of Havana, writes in an email, “But in many cases they are

    The plight of Playa Rosario’s residents is a preview of what could
    happen all along Cuba’s edges. The island is long and very thin—at its
    widest point it only takes about two hours to drive shore to shore. Ten
    percent of Cubans live along its 3,735 miles of coastline, and tourist
    beaches and coastal resorts generate $2.6 billion each year. The
    government has anticipated climate change as an existential threat to
    these communities and businesses for years. In 1991, before any
    international effort to address climate change was in place, Cuba formed
    a national commission to predict global warming’s effects on Cuba. Two
    years later, at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio, Fidel Castro
    conveyed his view on the gravity of the situation in an address to other
    world leaders: “An important biological species is in danger of
    disappearing,” he said. “Mankind.” In the 23 years since then, Cuban
    officials have continued to urge action on climate change at
    international meetings, with more fiery rhetoric. But to no avail. For
    20 years Cuban scientists have watched the waters rise. Cuba is
    shrinking, and there’s nothing it can do but adapt.

    The people of Rosario were forced to adapt by retreating from the
    water’s advances. The settlement prepared to receive Playa Rosario’s
    residents is eight miles inland, a cluster of two-story apartment
    buildings at the end of a dusty road, bordered by train tracks and
    cornfields. The concrete walls are strong enough to withstand the next
    hurricane, and the finished houses are painted bright baby blue. Alarcón
    lives in a first-floor apartment with four rooms, lace curtains in her
    bedroom, and a garden outside—something she could never have had in the
    sands of Rosario. She’s been here seven years, one of the 100 or so
    Rosario refugees who have moved in. But, 10 years after their
    evacuation, there still aren’t enough homes for all 300 of her former
    neighbors. Some finished houses stand empty because the lagoon that
    receives the settlement’s wastewater doesn’t have the capacity for more
    people. Many others are still under construction.

    “We have no life here,” Miliani says. But she and her family know they
    are the lucky ones.

    But Alarcón is lucky. She lives below her sister-in-law, Dalia Garcia
    Miliani, a cheerful woman with short dark hair and lots of laugh lines,
    and Dalia’s grandson, Yosiel Rojos Gil. Yosiel is 17, but his skinny
    frame and big eyes make him look even younger. He’s already finished
    school, and now he works in the fields that surround the settlement,
    farming corn, sugar, and cabbage.

    It’s hard work, Yosiel says. Where they live now, everything is far—the
    store, the beach, the next town. He was just seven years old when they
    left Playa Rosario, but he seems to pine for the life there as much as
    his elders do. They miss the seaside village life, when they had fish to
    barter for more food and goods. Now they mostly live off the Libreta de
    Abastecimientos, a monthly ration every Cuban gets: Two and a half kilos
    of rice, half a kilo of beans, a few kilos of sugar, a liter of milk per
    day for children and a dozen eggs—$8 worth of food, for the month.

    “We have no life here,” Miliani says. But she and her family know they
    are the lucky ones, to have real houses. The rest of the former Rosario
    residents still live in the temporary shelter, waiting to move into the
    settlement’s permanent homes.

    The shelter is only five minutes away by car, but a 20-minute walk in
    the hot sun. Yosiel’s mother lives here, just another faraway place for
    him to walk to. It’s small, a few one-story buildings, very close
    together, with crumbling cement brick walls and tin roofs. Laundry dries
    in the sun, and most people are inside to escape the heat. Emilio Acosta
    Durand and his brother Osmel sit on the floor of one room, mending a
    tarp they will use for fishing. The men are shirtless, their skin
    sunbaked to a rich tan. Emilio has his seven-month-old daughter, Emily,
    on his knee.

    “We’ve been here 10 years,” Emilio says. Emilio and Osmel lived and
    fished in Rosario for most of their lives. They still fish, but they
    have to take a motorcycle on the rough road to the beach, and come home
    to this dusty, dry room every night. The houses they had in Rosario
    weren’t any fancier, but it was nice to be by the water, Emilio says.
    Emily smiles and bounces in his arms. An angry red rash covers her
    little arms and legs. When she’s older, Emilio says, he will take her to
    Rosario, to bathe in the sulfur-rich water and mud that have cured
    Rosario baby rashes for generations. That’s also where he hopes to teach
    her to swim.

    It’s unlikely Emily will be able to take her own children to Rosario,
    and by the time her grandchildren learn to swim few Cuban beaches will
    be left for them: Five percent of Cuba will be completely underwater and
    82 percent of Cuban beaches will be partially or fully flooded by the
    end of the century, according to Cuban scientists’ predictions. Rosario
    is the first Cuban town to be permanently evacuated, but the people of
    Playa Uvero, about 186 miles to the northeast, might be next, and there
    may be many more: “Re-accommodation” is one of the many prongs of the
    government’s climate-change adaptation plan, according to official

    The ministry of civil defense has already embarked on a coastal
    protection scheme in which it demolished 287 beachfront government
    structures and 198 privately owned buildings since 2012. These buildings
    were taken down for violating Cuba’s coastal development law, which
    forbids construction within 40-80 meters of the shore, and building on
    sand dunes. The law was passed in 2000 but wasn’t enforced until 2011,
    after the government conducted a study on the effects of climate change
    and found that rising seas would swamp Cuban beaches well before the end
    of the century.

    “I think they’re just being smart,” says Dan Whittle, who works for the
    Environmental Defense Fund in Havana and has been involved in Cuban
    coastal development for over two decades. The Cuban government isn’t
    “trying to engineer its way out of the problem,” he says. They’re just
    moving out of the way, trying to stay safe for whatever comes next.

    Source: El Mar Se Comió Todo: On the Shrinking of Cuba – Pacific
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