The perils of unscientific beach beautification drives Lifestyle column

Around 24% of the world’s sandy beaches are eroding, and the situation is predicted to worsen with global sea level rise. Developing adaptation methods to promote coastal resilience is imperative at a time when coastal ecosystems, livelihoods, and populations are becoming increasingly vulnerable to climate change impacts.

Unfortunately, many of today’s beach beautification projects are unscientific, boasting excessive walkway areas, planters, and lawns. Neither the designers who conceptualize these projects, the authorities who sanction them, nor the general public who applauds them appear to fully understand the consequences of such irrational cosmetic efforts.

Beach grooming is a widespread practice that involves the use of large tractors fitted with rakes to clear debris and seaweed off beaches. Raking the sand aerates it, making it more prone to wind erosion. Furthermore, seeds and small plants that would have supported the stabilization of dunes are likely to be eliminated during grooming. It also disrupts or destroys the habitats of numerous organisms.

Beach lighting systems are chosen without regard for the effects of coastal illumination on species, such as disruption of behavior, injury, and even death. Light fixtures must ideally be positioned low and well-shielded in order to offer more direct light on the walkways while also ensuring that no light is emitted above a 90-degree plane. Wildlife-friendly LEDs that provide soft amber light can help conserve the natural habitat of nocturnal species without reducing visitor comfort.

Hard structures such as seawalls and revetments are widely used to protect shorelines. In the face of a changing coastal environment, such conventional hard or gray engineering solutions are expensive and inflexible. Coastal armoring degrades the habitat quality and biodiversity of coastal ecosystems significantly. Armouring traps beaches between the land and the sea, causing a coastal squeeze that restricts their ability to adapt to changing conditions and support inter-tidal wildlife. The loss of sandy beaches as a result of coastal armoring reduces recreational and environmental benefits, while the loss of ecological services cannot even be fully assessed.

A range of infrastructural measures, including nature-based, structural, and non-structural, which include regulatory and cultural approaches, as well as hybrid solutions, are needed to establish a balance between societal and environmental goals and go beyond simply minimizing climate risk. The most effective strategies for boosting resilience to climate impacts are hybrid ones that combine structural interventions with non-structural ones such as living shorelines, changes in zoning and building laws, and local capacity building.

The importance of preserving entire coastal ecosystems, rather than simply focusing on aesthetic enhancements, must be recognized because the value of complete, functional ecosystems outweighs the value of each of its individual components.

Approaches that prioritize ‘building with nature’ are ideal for building resilience throughout the entire coastal human-environmental system. The majority of sandy beaches have dune systems that naturally guard against flooding and serve as a barrier against storm wave erosion. Their integrity has been substantially compromised over the past few decades as a result of urbanization due to tourism. To address the reduction in ecological functioning, it is insufficient to measure the loss of sand or beach area or the effects of erosion.

If human access is limited to boardwalks or elevated walkways to prevent trampling of dune vegetation, shoreline erosion can be stabilized and, to some extent, reversed. Strategically positioned public access pathways can accomplish this while maintaining the tourist experience. Dune fencing can also serve to keep humans out of places that are subject to trampling. Coastal dunes can be reprofiled by restoring natural dynamics to promote biodiversity and resilience, however, restoring a dune ecosystem might take decades.

Sandy beaches may be considered as tidal wetlands, and ecological restoration activities could include the removal of risk-prone active or deteriorating infrastructure, as well as the removal of sediment transport barriers. A strategy that ensures ‘no net loss’ of beach habitats as a result of future development is required to rebuild resilient coastal ecosystems. Restoration efforts should concentrate on replanting dunes with native species, controlling human access to eco-sensitive areas, and placing informational posters on the beach to raise awareness of risks, negative behaviors, and constructive actions.

Mangrove ecosystems are valuable both ecologically and economically because they provide a range of ecosystem services, such as reducing coastal erosion, acting as a dependable source of food and wood, and serving as a habitat for various organisms. Interlocking mangrove roots and branches prevent rising water and protect people and infrastructure from catastrophic storm surges. On tropical coasts, mangrove restoration must be prioritized in beach beautification projects.

Hybrid projects help to bridge the gap between disciplines. However, due to methodological challenges, they have not gained much traction. An interdisciplinary approach that incorporates a diverse range of expertise and experience, from professionals and the general public could help in breaking down this barrier. Community participation is essential for increasing the capacity of the socio-economic and natural systems in the coastal environment to cope with disturbances and minimize long-term loss of beach ecosystem services.

Building climate change resilience necessitates going beyond technical solutions for disaster risk reduction and assisting communities in developing initiatives that will benefit them in the near and distant future.

(Ann Rochyne Thomas is a bio-climatic spatial planner and founder of Center for Climate Resilience – a sustainability and climate change advisory.)

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