When we imagine ourselves on the beach, the movement of the waves, the soccer games in the sand or the laughter of the children splashing on the shore come to mind. However, we are not aware that our beaches are suffering from what is known as “coastal stress”.
In the short term, this “coastal stress” involves the loss of natural habitats or the deterioration of their quality due to human interventions. But its long-term consequences could be even worse, as the countries most affected will not only lose their beaches, but also suffer incalculable economic and social impacts.
The disappearance of beaches
The occupation of coastal areas in the world has grown exponentially. The pursuit of recreation on the beaches, thanks to greater mobility and connectivity, has quadrupled tourism in the last 30 years. This had a substantial impact on the region’s economies. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, the travel and tourism sector, which largely represents sun and beach tourism, generated 16.9 million jobs, 7.9% of the total workforce in Latin America.
The wide and kilometer long coastlines of the American continent include beaches and dunes, which provide countless goods and services to our society. It is precisely human communities that, in most cases, participate in coastal degradation, whether through construction in fragile ecosystems such as dune zones or other types of interventions. This phenomenon, added to the rise in sea level due to climate change, is impacting beaches to the point that in some places they are disappearing.
Uruguay is an emblematic case. In places like the spa of Aguas Dulces, in the department of Rocha, the sea has advanced tens of meters in recent decades, dragging a handful of houses built on the beach and in the dunes each winter. For years, the neighbors of the houses built by the sea have tried to slow the advance of the sea, placing stones and sandbags, which only serves to delay the disappearance of their properties, if they are lucky, for a year or a month.
A problem underestimated by institutions
In this framework, temporary disturbances such as the so-called El Niño phenomenon, which affects countries across the region, further exacerbate the vulnerability of the back. The collapse of these ecosystems, in addition to being an environmental tragedy, implies the loss of livelihoods, as it affects industries such as tourism or directly the lives of the people who subsist on these ecosystems, such as fishing communities.
Weak management and governance arrangements, due in part to the fact that governments in the region are not always aware of the gravity of this situation, do not allow for proper monitoring and control of regulatory measures. This has potentialized the rapid degradation of wide and kilometer long coastal strips, with little or no containment measures.
The continual rise in the sea level, as well as the expansion of urbanization, industrialization and human influx, has profound consequences on beaches and dunes., not only because of the expansion of coastal infrastructure, but also because of the demand for resources and access.
Lack of clarity about impact factors, especially in relation to the boundaries of the beach ecosystem, prevents or limits the identification of responsible institutions that should design the most appropriate regulations.
In fact, in the absence of broad and long-term policies that should be conceived by central governments, what usually ends up happening is that the few initiatives that are taken are reduced to local policies to deal with specific problems. This directly affects the compression of the coast or the narrowing of the coastline.
Effective solutions… but insufficient
In Quintana Roo, Mexico, for example, under the leadership of coastal communities, a consensus on solutions regarding physical access rights and the use of common-use spaces. In addition, a balance has been found between the livelihood needs of fishermen and the demands of coastal tourism operators, and the organizations involved support the exchange of information.
Despite the success of some of these local policies, the problem is that central governments sometimes try to replicate them in other contexts and end up weakening the link between the environment and communities.
The need for a paradigm shift
According to the latest research on patterns, processes and ecological mechanisms on beaches, it is essential to take into account the social-ecological framework —not just economic— in order to correctly assess the vulnerability of these coastal systems to global environmental changes. The needs are so complex that they require the involvement of various sectors of society that do not normally interact, especially on such complex issues as coastline reduction and beach erosion.
In particular, policies and plans must maintain an equitable relationship with local populations, who possess the traditional ecological knowledge essential to strengthen coastal zone management strategies.
In this framework, governments should start taking care to learn more about the current state of coastal areas. In more urbanized areas, they will have to debate and negotiate with sectors such as real estate and industry that, ultimately, cannot continue to populate the coasts, in part because, in the long run, it will be their own businesses that will have to face the climate change onslaughts.
By saving beaches, we protect biodiversity, jobs and recreational spaces for both locals and visitors. But to do this, politicians and decision makers in the region must actively involve not only civil society and experts, but also satellite data and machine learning —learning automatic— to define measures to improve, strengthen or support management strategies for ecosystems as complex as beaches.
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