Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Extract from: Sea Grant in the Caribbean January - March 1998

Planning for Coastline Change, Saving Our Beaches

Forty years ago, tourism's economic potential had not yet shaped the Caribbean's development policies. During the 1960s, our islands' lush, green-fringed beaches were seen as a poor risk for permanent structures. Islanders, looking toward local resources for subsistence as well as commercial and social growth, found beachfront land to be poor for agricultural production, plagued by mosquitoes from nearby wetlands and highly vulnerable to a vast and unpredictable sea. It was only common sense to respect so changeable an environment, and build - with the future in mind - way back!

Tourism has changed our outlook, to say the least. Just as we have looked to outsiders as a source of employment, we have adopted a tourism-based lens with which to consider the surrounding geography. And in the past forty years, a majority of the Caribbean people have looked - and gravitated - toward the shore as a source of economic and social activity.

Sea Walls Serve a Few

While our coastlines were undeveloped, beach erosion happened but it went largely unnoticed. Now however, coastal development is threatened by the normal erosion process, plus what seems to be a rise in sea level throughout the region, in addition to storm-related surges of ocean water that can easily destroy million dollar buildings within a few hours time. As a result, more and more oceanfront property owners have built structures such as sea walls in order to protect luxury hotels and private homes.

But these hotels, homes and other buildings are being built on land that can easily wash away. And while sea walls may protect small beachfront areas, they often lead to accelerated beach erosion by preventing the natural process of inland sand migration. Concrete sea walls also contribute to the "armouring" of once-green coastlines. This aesthetic defilement surely lowers the tourism value of our shores.

Alternatives to Concrete Armour

One "soft" alternative to sea wall construction is beach nourishment, which represents the deposition of massive amounts of sand, similar in weight to the original sand it replaces. Although the benefits may outweigh the cost, beach nourishment is a very expensive proposition, especially since its results may very well last only until the next storm. Clearly, this alternative is feasible only for a few, highly developed island beaches.

A less expensive, long-term solution includes the adoption of wise policies of retreat, which dictate that new buildings be set back at a healthy distance from the ocean, that no new sea walls be constructed, and that old sea walls not be repaired. In the state of South Carolina, USA, this very policy was established as part of the Beachfront Management Act in 1988. Ten years later, it is being attacked in the courts, as wealthy coastal property owners pressure legislators to change the law. If they do succumb to the pressure, the general public will lose. For the protection of a few buildings will jeopardize the life of nearby public beaches.

On the Caribbean islands, more and more property owners have constructed erosion control structures such as sea walls and rock revetments. What can we do now to avoid making our beaches a fully armoured battleground between individual property owners and the general public.

Although this hotel in Dickenson Bay, Antigua looks inviting, it invites disaster. The beach itself has eroded down to just a few feet in width. A low stone wall was built to save the grass from encroaching waves, but all in all, the building is far too close to the water, and faces an imminent threat of destruction by storms

Planning for Coastline Change

Since 1997, a project titled Planning for Coastline Change is helping the smaller Caribbean islands to plan for the future by establishing safe setbacks between new developments and the active beach zone. As part of the project, which is sponsored by UNESCO and the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Sea Grant College Program, safe setbacks are also determined for other geological features such as the cliffs and low, rocky shores on each island.

Planning for Coastline Change had its beginnings in catastrophe. In 1995, Hurricane Luis swept a path of destruction from Antigua to Anguilla reaching out to islands as far away as St. Lucia and Puerto Rico. After surveying the damage, Anguilla sought to put in place mechanisms designed to avoid future hurricane damage to coastal infrastructure. As a result, the government of Anguilla and the Dependent Territories, Regional Secretariat designed more realistic coastal setback guidelines for Anguilla. These guidelines became the blueprint for one of Planning for Coastline Change's most important contributions: a generic method to determine realistic setbacks, which can be adapted to the conditions of any beach on any Caribbean island.

The method developed in Anguilla was fine tuned and made easy to use as the following setback formula:
Recommended Setback = (A+B+C) x 1 modified by D
A= projected change in coastline position over the next 30 years based on recorded changes between the 1960s and the 1990s (aerial photos and beach measurements, etc.).
B= projected change in coastline position likely to result from a major hurricane (based on measured changes caused by hurricanes Hugo and Luis).
C= predicted coastline retreat resulting from sea level rise, by the year 2030.
D= the impact of other factors such as ecological/geological features and social considerations. (For instance, the presence of a healthy, nearshore fringing coral reef might help to ease the setback, while a history of extensive beach sand mining would justify increasing the setback even more).

All such setbacks are measured from the line of permanent vegetation (the tree line). This represents a change in the Caribbean, for in the past, the high watermark was used as a starting point for measurement until it became clear that the high watermark changes from day to day.

While the same basic methodology is used for all countries and territories, it is adapted to the specific geographic and social conditions on each particular island. In Anguilla, for instance, a special case was made for beachfront restaurants on the grounds that their very viability depends upon their proximity to the water, which is considered to be a major attraction. However, all such new restaurants, once allowed on the beaches themselves, will now have to be set back a minimum of 25 feet (7.6 metres) from the tree line.

In Antigua and Barbuda, a problem arose as to how to deal with mangrove coastlines and wetland systems which, like beaches, should be treated individually. Thanks to another project funded by the Global Environment Facility Antiguans and Barbudans are involved in doing a full mangrove inventory, which includes measuring, mapping and prioritizing mangrove areas. Once this information has been processed, it will be very useful in determining not only realistic setback limits in more marginal wetlands, but also which wetlands should be totally protected.

While realistic coastal development setbacks are an excellent first step, they only solve part of the problem. That is, they regulate new developments but do not in any way remedy existing problems, such as the serious erosion already caused by sea walls. Government officials in Nevis have expressed interest in developing a beach management strategy that will not only include realistic setback guidelines for new developments but also address the problems caused by existing sea walls. As part of the strategy, officials began a full survey of these defensive structures in March of 1998.

For the Long-Term Good of All

Community education and awareness efforts must convey the idea that most problems caused by beach erosion can best be managed by adhering to setback regulations and auxiliary measures appropriate to each island. It should be made clear that these policies favour long-term benefits for the good of many rather than a short-term gain for a few.

Will we keep our beaches for as long as possible for the benefit of all island residents and our visitors, or will we succumb to the pressure to sacrifice the common good for the short-term benefit of an economically powerful minority? The choice is up to the islanders. The choice is ours.

Dr. Gillian Cambers
co-ordinator, COSALC

COSALC (Coast and Beach Stability in the Lesser Antilles) is a program of UNESCO, co-sponsored by the UPR Sea Grant College Program. Its aim is to help smaller islands of the eastern Caribbean address the problems arising from beach erosion and other manifestations of coastal change. For more information or to order the COSALC brochure (UPRSG-A-62) call Dr. Cambers at (787) 832-3585 or fax your message to (787) 265-2880.

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