Berkeley to help sister city in Cuba with clean water plan

By Tom Miller

Following Mayor Tom Bates and State Senator Loni Hancock’s December visit to Palma Soriano, Berkeley’s sister city in Eastern Cuba, plans are afoot for a community-built clean water solution for the entire city of 80,000 people.

For the past decade, UC Berkeley researchers have traveled to Palma to work with the community to develop a plan which will blend the deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban based affinity to land and nature with a low-tech, low cost green field sewage treatment plan. The people of Palma’s roots stretch back to Haiti when French slave owners brought slaves to Eastern Cuba when they fled Haiti’s slave rebellion over 200 years ago.

The proposed sewage plan would direct the raw sewage that now drains into the Cauto River into a series of ponds containing special plants that remove toxins and sediment, providing clean water for reforested areas and organic vegetable gardens and orchards.  The same approach effectively cleaned Havana’s main river, the Almendares, at a fraction of the cost of modern sewage treatment plants.

Nelson and grandaughter

A miniaturist artist and his granddaughter. Photo: TT Nhu

The proposal is fairly straightforward, but requires support. As Cal landscape architecture and environmental planning professor Matt Kondolf says in a short film about the city and its people, made by Cuban documentary filmmaker Carlos Betancourt: “These are the things that we did in the US 100, 150 years ago. It doesn’t require highly sophisticated analysis  but it does require a systematic approach. And we would need some funding from internatioanl foundations or other sources.”

A key factor in the implementation of the plan, which will be ready by May, is getting the go-ahead from the US government. Washington continues to impose an embargo prohibiting humanitarian cooperation with the Cuban government. By administering the project through Cuba’s foremost environmental NGO, the Antonio Núňez Jiménez Foundation, and Palma’s independent cultural/social organization, Ennegro, it is hoped permission for this project will be granted by the White House.

Local Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who has long advocated reconciliation between the two countries, has promised her support

Mayor Bates and Senator Hancock, along with UC Berkeley river restoration experts, will describe the Palma Soriano project at a “Report Back” on Sunday Feb. 24, at 1 p.m. at Redwood Gardens, 2951 Derby St. Berkeley. Betancourt will present his short film which he is currently completing in Berkeley. The public is invited.

Tom is president of Green Cities Fund, which is raising funds for the Sister City/UC Berkeley sponsored clean water project in Palma Soriano.

Tom Bates and Loni Hancock visit sister city in Cuba [12.31.12]

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  • Biker 94703

    I wonder if our sister city could help Mayor Bates balance the City’s long-term budget?

  • The Sharkey

    Maybe we can get them to send over some folks to help with our potholes in exchange for help with their sewage problem.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I nominate Kriss to go help out.

    Some of our potholes are so deep that it will soon make sense to use them as tunnels to our sister cities around the globe.

    Or perhaps we’ll let one get wide enough to use as a Warm Pool.

  • Tizzielish

    I wrote about this elsewhere on B’side but it’s not just potholes. The sidwalks in some residential areas — south of UC — are so bad, combined with not-very-bright street lights and the darkening tree canopy over the sidewalk, some of this city’s sidewalks are treacherous after sunset. I stumbled and fell walking down Ellsworth simply because I could not see the bumps on what I had expected to be a flat sidewalk. If we can fund sewage help in Haiti, let’s fund sidewalk repair in Berkeley first.

  • berkeley native

    This is ridiculous, why do our local politicians insist on getting involved with other countries? They should leave this sort of work for the state department and NGOs and focus on fixing our city first.

  • TN

    I could understand this a little bit better if Berkeley had a sewage treatment system like the one being proposed for Palma Soriano. The City of Arcata does have one that is very similar and so does have the experience to share if they were invited.

    UC no doubt has some experts on the subject. But UC isn’t the City.

  • Tom Miller

    FYI no city or state funds were used for the December Sister City visit to Palma Soriano. Tom (who is unpaid as Mayor) and Loni paid their own way.

  • The Sharkey

    Well, to be fair to our local politicos, America does still have a ridiculous and unfair embargo on Cuba so it’s difficult to do anything at a National level.

  • Guest

    I often have raw sewage running down my street…
    living in Berkeley must not be much different than living in Cuba.
    Maybe if the city council didn’t waste money on unnecessary expenditures like Sunday streets, fecal matter would flow beneath my street, just like in other third world countries.

  • irisandjules

    Yes, the potholes are pretty bad – I drove though 4th Street today and was wondering when that will ever be fixed. On the other hand, why the negativity – this was not on taxpayer money or time. Why not just be pleased that something nice is happening for a poor community. For anyone who has ever traveled to developing counties, it is clear how unbelievably rich and spoiled we are. Can’t we just be happy to that some poor community gets a little help?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Sidewalk repair is actually the responsibility of the property owner.

    The city runs a program to split the cost with property owners 50/50 so that more of it gets done, but that program runs out of money in a hurry. I waited 2 years for my turn. I was actually surprised that city workers did the job instead of having subcontracted it out.

    More info here:

  • PragmaticProgressive

    You make a fair point and yes, we can be happy that another community gets a little help.

    However, I would love to open up Berkeleyside one day and read that our city’s leaders had knuckled down to fix one of the longstanding problems so often discussed here. Streets, fraudulent enrollment in BUSD, unfunded pension liabilities, bloated and unnecessary departments, punks and drunks sprawled out in our commercial districts — it’s a long list.

    What IS being done with taxpayer time and money seems woefully inadequate and I think that’s where the negativity comes from.

  • Cynical

    Bates has a big state pension, however.

  • Here, here Berkeley Native! Local politicians are elected to run this city, not get involved with international, or even national politics.

    From the White House web site

    “Municipalities generally take responsibility for parks and recreation services, police and fire departments, housing services, emergency medical services, municipal courts, transportation services (including public transportation), and public works (streets, sewers, snow removal,
    signage, and so forth).”

    Let’s get Berkeley focused on improving Berkeley better first. Think globally…Act (and improve) Locally

  • True regarding the embargo (well…sort of), but not the mandate of a municipal government to resolve.

  • Hey PP…you nailed it.

  • Berkeleyfatiqued

    I continue to be dumbfounded by the Berkeley’s Sister City programs (how
    many do we need!?!?!). I thoroughly agree with PP! Well said!

  • YOUTUBE: Situación de las Viviendas en Cuba. Así viven los cubanos – The housing situation in Cuba. This is how ordinary Cubans live

    YOUTUBE: Escasez de agua en Cuba. Así viven los cubanos – Water shortages in Cuba. This is how ordinary Cubans live.

  • CUBA TRANSITION PROJECT – Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American
    Studies at University of Miami – 2006

    Water Pollution

    According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), water pollution
    in Cuba is a serious concern, particularly since there is a marked lack of
    infrastructure to address the issue. Of the 2,160 main contaminant sources
    recognized by UNEP, 1,273 or 59 percent, release their pollution into the Cuban
    environment without any treatment whatsoever. Another 433, or roughly 20
    percent, receive limited but inadequate treatment before being discharged. (2)
    This analysis included agricultural sources of contamination, as well as
    industrial and human waste.

    Despite its clear importance to the citizens of Cuba, the treatment of urban
    sewage in particular is extremely limited: only 17 or 18 percent receives any
    treatment before discharge into Cuban waterways. (3) The infrastructure of water
    and sanitation are beyond the breaking point and are close to catastrophic
    failure. Havana’s sewer system, which was built almost a hundred years ago, has
    been due for major repairs for almost five decades and is serving over two
    million citizens, well beyond its design capacity of 400,000. (4)

    The Cuban government has recognized this as a major environmental problem on
    the island, conceding that “pollution in our ground and marine waters has
    gradually aggravated…caused mainly by the deficient state of the sewerage and
    its incomplete nature in the majority of cases.” (5) UNEP reported an
    approximate total of 341,716 tons per year of organic material discharged into
    Cuban waters, equivalent to the pollution generated by a population of over 22.3
    million people. It is worth noting that this level is twice the actual 2005
    population of 11.2 million. (6)

    The effects of this system on the Cuban environment have been severe. Cuban
    bays are widely recognized as being among the most polluted in the world. (7)
    The Almendares River, which flows through Havana, carries the untreated sewage
    of over 42,000 people directly to Havana Harbor and coastal waters. (8) There
    has been evidence that in Havana, an underground aquifer that provides 36% of
    the city’s potable water that runs directly beneath the polluted Almendares,
    represents a very high risk of widespread drinking water contamination for the
    city. (9)

    This is a phenomenon that is being replicated throughout the country: it has
    been estimated that annually 863.4 billion gallons of contaminated water finds
    its way into Cuba’s rivers, much of it industrial. (10) A recent study of the
    groundwater in Moa, usually a naturally protected resource, concluded that a new
    water source for the population of Moa must be developed quickly, as the present
    source will be increasingly contaminated with heavy metals much of it from the
    nickel industry in the medium to long-term. (11) Tourist facilities have also
    exhibited insufficient treatment regimens, as many either pump waste directly
    into the sea at some distance from the coast, or use small oxidation pools, and
    release lightly treated water into the ocean. (12)


  • NoName

    Too bad the city chose to plant those ghastly pavement-ripping locust trees on the bike routes.

  • 4th generation berkeley woman

    the idea that you are comparing our “shortages” or deteriorating infrastructure with Cuba’s is ludicrous. You are speaking in the dark. Can you just be happy that someone is trying to do something positive?

  • Che Joubert

    Any positive involvement with Cuba is incredibly heartwarming. Our country has put most of its resources at one time or another into destroying that country – and into an incredible amount of bigoted, ignorant slams against its amazing social reforms. Cuba has zero illiteracy and one of the best medical systems in the world – while the same people who tried to prevent that now turn on the citizens of the US with the same intention – to keep us fighting amongst ourselves, while sick and bankrupt. Cuba beat most of that – perhaps we can learn from each other.

  • Che Joubert

    See my post above where I point out that Cuba has solved, with a fraction of the budget – many problems we have not – there’s a better chance of help coming from Cuba than from most American politicos. When did knowing this bite the dust? Before or after the 1% stole all our money and are now in the process of moving the money to Asia?

  • karenlee726

    It’s sad to see that there could be Berkeley citizens so unworldly — or even so unaware of what happens around the USA — not to mention so selfish — that they don’t know that almost all major cities in the United States and even many smaller ones have sister city relationships with other cities around the world. It isn’t a matter of richer cities helping poorer ones — although that’s a good idea — but actually the idea that cities can benefit mutually from such relationships, learn from each other, share experiences and resources. Fortunately many or most Berkeley residents are more worldly and less selfish than those who wrote in opposing this plan.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    Take your meds, and your hallucinations will end.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    Didn’t Bates support Measure M to pave the streets and Measure S to deal with people sprawled out in the commercial districts? Didn’t he spend much more time on these issues than on Cuba?

    I would love to open up Berkeleyside one day and not hear the same handful of people repeating their endless complaints once again.

    It reminds me of the comments on Yahoo News, where whatever the issue is, some people will use it as an excuse to attach Obama. On Berkeleyside, whatever the issue is, some people will use it as an excuse to complain about potholes.

  • Thank you Berkeley. Thank you to all the Cubans who continue to try to make their lives and country a better. Obviously from this article and the many comments, both Americans and Cubans need better. Before Cuba’s revolution the people in the countryside didn’t count. The revolution put them first and now most Cuban’s can read and get better medical care than most of the world. They are still poor and we in the US still suffer not only from ignorance, but as many of the mean spirited comments show, we suffer from lack of compassion or the desire to see if together, we might all make things better.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Street repair should be covered by existing revenue, not new bond measures.

    You hear the complaints again and again because there is little progress. And, yes, fixing potholes actually is the job of city government, so the complaints are fairly targeted.

    Bates and the council can spend their free time however the like, including on Cuba. My concern is that their results on our time aren’t good enough.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Street repair should not require a special ballot measure. That one was needed shows a failure to manage the city’s existing budget.

  • Carlos

    Why can’t they build there own?
    Workers paradise my ass.