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Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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The time of sands…

Tropical storms and hurricanes in the Caribbean regularly wipe out beaches. With ‘wise practice’ they usually come back in time. But tourism development is not always so wise.

Everyone in the Caribbean remembers “Left-handed Lenny.” Lenny was the hurricane that came from the wrong side. Most hurricanes in the Caribbean start in the Atlantic Ocean and move through the islands from east to west. “Hurricane Lenny was different,” remembers Gillian Cambers, a beach erosion specialist who lives in Puerto Rico. “It started off the coast of Colombia in the western Caribbean, and instead of moving north or west, as the forecasters predicted, began moving east. It got stronger as it went, building up bigger and bigger waves.” In a couple of days in mid-November 1999 it had caused physical damage to the islands estimated at around US$269 million, without counting loss of revenue. For Grenada alone, one of the worst hit, the damage was over US$94 million, or 27 percent of its GDP (1).

“No warnings had been given, no boats had been pulled up,” recalls Cambers. “And, strangest of all for many islanders, there was no wind. It was the waves that wreaked havoc. Most of the tourism infrastructure is concentrated on the west coasts of the Caribbean islands, because they are sheltered from the prevailing easterly winds. But they were not sheltered from Hurricane Lenny. Houses disappeared, hotels and roads were damaged and flooded, fishing boats were lost, and the west coast beaches in every island in the chain from Tobago in the south to the Virgin Islands in the north were eroded, just one month before the start of the tourism high season. The economic impact was huge. Hotels had to close for months, in some cases more than a year, to try to repair the damage and put back their beaches.”

Lenny caught the islanders out, but they are used to hurricanes. In the Caribbean, there is a hurricane ‘season’ that runs roughly from June to November. And, before tourism became a significant money-earner, experience led islanders to build either inland, or a reasonable distance from the coast. “Lenny didn’t do much to the inland infrastructure,” says Arlington James, of Dominica’s Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division, “but the waves from Lenny did affect the coast. Some beaches were only just recovering from tropical storm Iris, Hurricane Marilyn and then Hurricane Luis that hit us in the space of two weeks in 1995. And before that, we’d been hit by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Belle Hall, a very wide and popular beach up north is now just a strip of boulders.”


But Dominica has little tourism, unlike most other Caribbean islands. And tourism often means beachside hotels and refreshment stalls. When a beach disappears after a hurricane, not only is the main tourist attraction lost, but ill-placed hotels, roads, water supplies and shops often go with it. And, increasingly, some islands depend on tourism. In 2000, for example, visitors spent some $277 million in Saint Lucia, accounting for over 40 percent of its Gross National Product.(2) Yet much of the damage could be avoided. “People often feel they must build right on the beach, and it is hard for planning authorities to convince them otherwise,” explains Gillian Cambers. “But beaches are dynamic features, always moving and changing shape. We draw a line on a map, a solid, permanent line, and this represents the coastline. In fact, the coastline, or the area where the sea meets the land, is a moving zone, varying in position according to the tides, waves and storm conditions, the time of year, sediment and other factors.”

By allowing beaches the space to move, there is a good likelihood that they will be conserved in the long term,” she adds. Instead, out of ignorance, or an attitude of ‘it won’t happen here’, developers still build too close to the water. And in often-misguided efforts to protect the beach or the infrastructure, they, or local municipalities, build protective sea walls or erect groynes into the sea to lessen the impact of waves. But both measures are often counterproductive. Sea walls invariably increase beach erosion, while sand tends to build up on one side of a groyne and disappear on the other.

“Beach erosion is very complex,” says Gillian Cambers. “And, while every beach is different, there is also no single erosion mitigation method that works everywhere.” A UNESCO project monitoring changes in beaches over time has shown that, over a ten-year period, two-thirds of the beaches monitored showed erosion, while the remaining third were either building up or showed no change. This uniqueness of beaches and preventive measures is one reason UNESCO has been working with ten island authorities in the Caribbean to produce a series of tailor-made brochures aimed to raise awareness and to give very specific guidance on building precautions on a beach-by-beach basis.

“We use the brochures with our students, non governmental organizations and environment groups,” says Benjie Farrell, of the Environment Department, St Kitts.

“Most of our population are familiar with the issues, but we still need to emphasise attitude change in the coastal zone.” And, to prove his point, he says that, in a recent development, “twenty acres of harbour were reclaimed from the sea, and filled in with boulders. Now it’s a shopping mall. It’s affecting the wave patterns in the area and these are affecting the adjacent beaches.” And the added irony of this is that offshore sand is often used to make the concrete for the buildings. But, in time, they will probably all return to the sea – and end up as beaches again.

1.USAID, April 17, 2000
2.Compendium of Tourism Statistics, 2000, World Tourism Organization.

Photo © (top) Gillian Cambers: Maunday’s Bay (Anguilla) after Hurricane Lenny

Photo © (N° 1 and N° 2) Gillian Cambers: Pinney’s Beach (Nevis) before Hurricane Luis and after.

Photo © (bottom) Gillian Cambers: building fences to retain dunes.

Beach erosion

  • About 20 percent of world population (some 1,147 million people) live within 30 km of the nearest coastline. In small island developing states, like the Seychelles, and some Caribbean islands, this figure can be more like 90 percent. The coastal zone has the highest diversity of plant and animal species and many small islands are almost entirely dependent on their coastal resources (e.g. fishing, tourism, etc). But all coasts worldwide are under threat from various aggressions, such as sea level rise as a result of global warming, destruction of protective coral reefs and mangrove forests (which act as natural wave-breaks), beach erosion, increased storms, land-based pollution, unsustainable development, etc.
  • Beaches are naturally dynamic, constantly eroding and being replenished. They absorb the shock of large waves and storms and, unimpeded, can ‘retreat’ inland, reverting to their earlier position months or years later. But solid structures, like roads, sea walls and the foundations of buildings, when too close to the beach, prevent this natural process and inevitably lead to erosion. In some African states, like Nigeria, parts of the coastline are disappearing at as much as 20-30 metres a year.
  • Dunes also provide a protective barrier against waves. When dunes are removed for development, (or destroyed by hurricanes), beach erosion accelerates dramatically. Techniques exist to encourage their reformation, like erecting picket fences to trap sand. But these take time to work. Similarly, eroded beaches can be replenished artificially by extracting sand offshore and dumping it on the beach. Wealthier Caribbean beachside hotels often do this following a hurricane. But it is expensive and can cause other problems.
  • Beach erosion is not just a problem for small islands and developing countries. The US state of Florida spends around $8.6 million every year on erosion management. This includes regular beach monitoring. And thanks to such monitoring (often by volunteers) in Caribbean islands, it has been possible to develop individual profiles beach-by-beach over several years, showing which are most vulnerable. This is needed to draw up guidelines on ‘wise practises’, such as the series of booklets produced by UNESCO

By Peter Coles

Source: pp 17-19 in the New Courier, UNESCO, October 2003





Wise Practices Regions Themes