Saving Cuba’s crops from the drought of the century

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By Ruth Silva, Information and Communications Assistant, EU Humanitarian Aid

Before hurricane Irma battered Cuba in September, the Caribbean island had been struggling through a devastating drought for years, affecting crops, livestock and even people’s drinking water supply.

At least 128 municipalities (out of 168) were severely affected, 39 reporting a severe drought and 58 an extreme drought. Roughly 900 000 people have insufficient water, which consequently means insufficient harvests and food insecurity.

The European Commission, through its Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations department has been supporting two different projects to help Cubans face recurring droughts, with ECHO partners the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

"Had this project been running before, I would not have planted all that cassava that died without any rains,” says Osmay “Mayito” Tejada, a farmer from Cuba’s eastern city of Santiago.

“Mayito” refers to what was called the drought of the century – so far. It destroyed thousands of acres of crops. In fact, 43 % of the Cuban territory has suffered from lack of rainfall during the first quarter of 2017, according to national data.

More than 145 000 people have benefited from the EU-funded projects. €600 000 were earmarked to strengthen national institutions managing the public water supply. Cuban authorities have promoted a more efficient use of water, the construction of additional water tanks and the improvement of water management systems. National policies such as the national water policy, the climate change plan, and laws on the sustainable management of water resources are also being updated.

“Once Cuba’s Institute of Meteorology registers a coming drought, it informs farmers who limit or change the crops they plant to avoid crippling losses,” says Virginie André, who heads the EU's humanitarian programmes in the Caribbean region.

In order to do that, the EU and its humanitarian partners have deployed 22 meteorological stations in Cuba’s eastern provinces. The monitoring equipment’s advanced technology allows for constant surveillance, anticipated weather forecasts, and warnings systems built in the country’s hydrological network.

A second EU-funded project led by Movimiento por la Paz (MPDL), and which includes international NGOs CARE, CISP, GVC, Mundubat, OIKOS and OXFAM has been supporting communities directly. The project develops sustainable practices to increase drought resilience and food security.

The partners have facilitated the distribution of simple water-collection and storage equipment to families vulnerable to the effects of drought. Gutters were fitted on roofs to save water into designated tanks for all uses.

With the help of communities, experts have defined indicators for drought monitoring and anticipation, so that farmers can protect and save some of their crops. These indicators now trigger protocols for farmers and authorities to reduce crop losses.

Effective risk reduction requires the involvement of local communities who face natural hazards, in order to enhance everyone’s resilience.

"My part in this project is to make the science accessible to everyone, including the farmers in the field, and to increase the perception of risk so that everyone can react accordingly," says Ana Lourdes Brito, a meteorologist in Santiago de Cuba.

The projects also include advocacy efforts and school teachers, students, and parents have been educated on drought risks and ways to preserve water.

"Now my classmates and I are able to show our neighbours how not to waste water, and how to avoid the drought’s worst effects," says Marco Antonio Matos, a 10-year old student from the Raúl Gómez primary school in Santiago province.