Cuba’s Hurricane Recovery Solution

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The frequency of extreme weather in the past decade has been attributed to global warming (http://tinyurl.com/5peel). Many scientists believe the future will bring even more turbulent weather events and disasters. The devastation and hardship brought by natural disasters can eradicate development gains, and destroy livelihoods and health. It is critical countries help people to get back to their normal lives as fast as possible.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (http://www.ipcc.ch) says extreme weather events will become more frequent, more widespread and/or more intense during the 21st century. Extreme weather is already costly for countries in the global South. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) found that the cost of droughts, storm surges, hurricanes and floods reached a record US$210 billion in 2005.

The Caribbean island of Cuba (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuba) was particularly affected in 2008 by extreme weather, as the island was battered by two devastating hurricanes – Ike and Gustav – and a lesser one, Paloma.  It was the only time that three major hurricanes have hit Cuba in the same season, with just a 10 day gap between Gustav and Ike. The hurricanes were described as the “worst ever” storms by Cuban officials

The cost to Cuba has been high: Damages from Ike and Gustav are estimated at more than US$5 billion (http://tinyurl.com/ba7xny).

Between 2001 and 2005, Cuba experienced seven major hurricanes. Half a million houses were damaged, and 90,000 destroyed. In the 2008 storms, 619,981 homes were damaged and 70,409 destroyed, with 468,995 homes losing their roof tiles.

But Cuba has developed a pioneering way to quickly rebuild after disasters on a tight budget and using local resources. By using so-called ecomaterials – construction materials that are ecologically and economically viable – the Cuban approach erects sturdy homes, rather than just temporary shelters.

It is a common experience after a disaster in a developing country for all the resources to be spent on imported emergency shelter – tents, shacks, plastic sheeting – that then become permanent and inadequate homes. These makeshift dwellings provide poor security and shelter from the elements. For Cuba, the enormous scale of the repair and reconstruction job is especially difficult because of the fuel shortages and building supply restrictions brought on by the United States’ embargo on the country (http://tinyurl.com/4alwrb). In turn, Cubans are adaptable and creative with their solutions.

The Cuban approach builds permanent homes that can be expanded, teaches homebuilding skills and creates permanent employment in manufacturing building materials.

By developing technologies to manufacture building materials – bricks, concrete blocks, cement, roofing tiles, bamboo furniture – on site using local resources, the approach lets homeless people themselves rebuild sturdy, high-quality homes, rather than waiting for outside building crews to come and do it, or being dependent on expensive, imported building materials. By doing this, jobs are created and wealth and gets the community back on its feet after the disaster.

“This is all about going back to the roots: wood, concrete and bricks,” said the passionate brains behind this approach, Fernando Martirena, a professor at CIDEM  — the Centre for Research and Development of Structures and Materials — at the Universidad Central de Las Villas, in Santa Clara , Cuba (www.ecosur.org).

“The so-called free market has demonstrated it can not tackle this problem of the urgent housing crisis in the world.”

At the heart of the Cuban approach are easy-to-use machines that produce the building materials. They range from hand-cranked presses that make mud and clay bricks, to vibrating presses for concrete brick making.

Training the homeless population to do the building themselves allows reconstruction work to begin straight away, rather than waiting for professional building crews to arrive on the scene. It is also psychologically more empowering for the people to be active participants in the rebuilding of their lives. The pride the people have in their new homes is visible.

And quality has been critical for the programme so it can become sustainable and long-lasting:

“The driving force for this project is need,” Martirena said. “If we want to obtain sustainability, we must go beyond need. After disaster, need is the driving force. But after two years, when most things have been completed, it must be a business. Good, beautiful, cheap. Normally, this technology is cheaper than industrial technology.”

To stay prepared for future natural disasters that destroy or damage homes, the Cubans have established strategic reserves of micro-concrete roofing tiles. The lightweight but strong tiles can be used to quickly erect a small module home, and then the home can be expanded and built on as resources and time allow.

Martirena, a former UNHABITAT award-winner, believes this approach to building materials brings prosperity back to rural areas and helps stem the flood of people to cities and urban sprawl seen across the global South.

“You have to go back to the origin of the problem: people are looking for money and better jobs. It is not because they like the cities; they hate the cities!”

“Bamboo harvesting (for furniture making) can bring people three times more income than they would make in the cities. They are really making money.”

For Cuba, this has been a journey from a highly centralised and fuel-dependent approach to house building, to a decentralised, low-fuel approach. From 1959, the year of the revolution, until 1988, Cuba built housing using a centralised factory method to make building materials. Prefabricated houses were erected across the country. The materials were delivered by road and rail, all fuelled by cheap oil from the former Soviet Union.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, oil became scarce and the transport network the building industry depended on fell apart. This time was called the “special period.”

Apart from natural disasters, Cuba’s housing stock has suffered under the US embargo. The country’s housing began to decay as repairs were not happening and new houses were not being built. When people did want to do the repairs themselves, the lack of building supplies made it difficult for them to do so. Cuba realized it had to do things differently: the solutions had to be local, energy-efficient, and easy to use.

CIDEM oversees workshops, training and building teams across the country. It tests new materials and designs in its labs before they are deployed as building solutions. The ecomaterials are chosen for low energy use and the ability to recycle waste. Being inexpensive, they offer a sustainable solution for the poor.

In the community of Jatibonico, single mothers make up 40 percent of those who have benefited from the building projects. One woman proudly showed off the home she had built in the Spanish style, complete with Greco-roman columns on the porch. It has a clean, modern bathroom with shower and toilet.

Martirena is currently working on a book of case studies about CIDEM’s projects helping Cubans cope with reduced oil dependency.

CIDEM collaborates with universities around the world and has 19 workshops employing over 200 people in Cuba, and 15 in other countries in Latin America and Africa. It works with the Ecosur initiative and all the machines and advice on how to use them is available from the Ecosur website (www.ecosur.org).

Resources

  • “How Cuba Survived Peak Oil” is an award-winning film on how Cuba transitioned from a highly mechanized, industrial agricultural system to one using organic methods of farming and local, urban gardens. It is an unusual look into the Cuban culture during this economic crisis, which they call “The Special Period.” Website: http://www.powerofcommunity.org/cm/index.php
  • Global Greenhouse Warming is a website that tracks extreme weather events around the world: drought, flooding, severe storms, severe winter, tropical cyclone, wildfires, and extreme heat waves. Website:http://www.global-greenhouse-warming.com/extreme-weather.html
  • Cuba Hurricanes: Real-time reports of current hurricane threats to Cuba provided by an office in Old Havana. Also information on hurricanes of historical significance to Cuba. Website: http://www.cubahurricanes.org/
  • Gerd Niemoeller has developed flat pack, cardboard homes that can be deployed quickly after a disaster and can become permanent homes. Website: http://tinyurl.com/6t6jtf and the company website: http://www.wall.de/en/home
  • CIDEM and Ecosur specialise in building low-cost community housing using eco-materials. They have projects around the world and are based in Cuba. Website: http://www.ecosur.org

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.