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Saving the sand

by Julia Rawlins-Bentham

beacherosionBeach erosion is occurring in Barbados, but the island is rising to the challenge of combating the loss of sand on its beaches and to enhance its shorelines.

Evidence of this can be seen in the Richard Haynes Boardwalk, the Welches Beach project, the previously completed Holetown Beach Improvement project and more recently, the ongoing Holetown Waterfront Improvement project.

The Coastal Risk Assessment and Management Programme is also expected to allow further diagnostic studies and understanding on how storm surges and other coastal risks will affect the country, its coasts, and guide technocrats on the best way forward to enhance the island’s resilience to a range of coastal hazards.

Once completed, Coastal Engineer at the Coastal Zone Management Unit, Ricardo Arthur, said officials would be in a better position to form decisions about where interventions were needed and the best methods to use.

“The problem has been adequately identified. What we are doing is challenged by the fact that there is so much development especially on the west and south [coasts]. But we are moving forward especially as coming out of the CRMP will be further diagnostic studies, a greater understanding of storm surges and other risks that affect Barbados,” Arthur added.

During a recent interview he described the majority of the island’s beaches as being in a state of dynamic equilibrium.

Arthur explained that when a beach became eroded as a result of a storm event and loss of sand, it usually returned within a few days or months, depending on the severity of the event. However, he noted that there were instances where sand was transported so far offshore by a high energy event, that even when calmer conditions returned there was permanent loss.

“There are problems, but the time scale of the problems has a lot to do with it. Certain beaches will show trends and then those trends reverse naturally. The problem sometimes arises, however, that there is damage to infrastructure during an erosion event,” he said.

Arthur pointed out that Barbados experienced three major types of waves.

“You get the waves coming from the local wind conditions, North East trades; [then] you get the tropical cyclones which historically do not pass over the island frequently but still generate waves that affect the island; and then you get the swells which occur during the maritime winter from October to March,” he said.

He added that waves coming from due north usually battered Barbados’ west coast, and occurred during the peak tourist season.

“That is why we get a lot of complaints especially around that time. But, you will find that come summer, the beach is okay. That is why several of our projects are focusing on limiting the extent of beach erosion during that period, and reducing the movement of sand from beaches when the swells are running,” the engineer stated.

However, while acknowledging that some forces of nature contribute greatly to beach erosion, Arthur stressed that residents also needed to look at the things they did to contribute to the problem, and try to limit those activities.

The coastal engineer identified pre-existing structures as one of the biggest challenges confronting the CZMU. He explained that while there was a need to enhance setbacks, it was often in conflict with the property owner’s desires to develop and maintain existing building lines to maximise the use of land.

“The setback policy is critical in dealing with erosion because when structures are built too close to the high water mark, the waves don’t have the ability to run up the beach and deposit sand, they just hit against the vertical face,” he pointed out.

Arthur noted that recorded beach erosion in Barbados started as far back as the 1950s when the thrust in tourism development first occurred.

“It was documented too, in the late 60s and early 70s, when they responded by installing some gyrones along the south coast,” he recalled.

He added that the CZMU started out as a project unit in the 1980s after it was recognised that developments within the tourism industry were causing problems.

“We did a series of projects trying to understand our marine environment, and how we could protect and enhance it,” he said.

The Coastal Engineer pointed out that two feasibility studies on the west and east coasts were conducted, and an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan to guide Barbados’ development and protect the island’s shoreline developed.

In addition, he noted the CZMU was monitoring activities and regulations in relation to Town Planning and Country Development applications.

“Outside of that we have had some infrastructural projects which have been done to protect existing shorelines where it was determined that these areas would be priority because of some parameters we were analysing,” he explained.

Arthur stressed that the work of the Marine section of the CZMU was critical and involved the monitoring of reef health to gather data. He explained that sand was generated through a process called bio-erosion which occurred when fish burrowed through coral and algae, causing it to break and make its way to the shoreline as sand.

“What we actually see on the beach is bio-eroded coral and algae which originated offshore. It is a continuous process of growth and bio-erosion,” he explained.

However, he noted that climate change caused stressors to the coral through a process known as coral bleaching which affected the reef health.

“When you have an increased number of storms, increased intensity, all associated with climate change, all that would lead to erosion,” Arthur indicated.

He maintained that the supplier (the coral) had to be in good health to sustain the level of sand. “So, we have to tackle the issues from both ends,” he said.

But, despite the challenges — both man-made and natural — Arthur noted that Barbados had recorded some measure of success in the implementation of shoreline enhancement and protection structures in Barbados.

However, he maintained that there were still vulnerable areas in need of intervention. Those areas, he said, included Mullins, some headlands along the west coast, some areas in St. Lucy, Six Men’s and Shermans in St. Peter.

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