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Diana McCaulay: Why moving sand from Negril matters

Published:Tuesday | January 19, 2016 | 1:00 AMDiana McCaulay, Contributor
Diana McCaulay
File In this September 14, 2014 photo, the tide gnaws away at a badly eroding patch of resort-lined beach in Negril in western Jamaica. The removal of beach sand in the resort town has sparked controversy between the forces of development and conservation.
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Last week, a large volume of sand and soil was removed from the foundation excavations of a hotel in Negril, and the ensuing commentary has focused on whether the investor had the correct permits and licences. The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) would like to outline the reasons why the removal of beach sand from one part of the coastline to another is often problematic.

Sandy beaches are built by a variety of processes - weathering of rocks, breakdown of coral and shells, deposition of sediments by rivers, transport of suspended particles of sand by ocean currents, decomposition of certain types of algae, and excretion of particles by some marine organisms like parrot fish.

Influenced by weather, currents, time of year, and other factors, beaches naturally become wider and narrower over time, hence, one definition of a beach is 'sand in motion'. Beaches are maintained by other natural features like coral reefs, sand dunes, mangroves and seagrasses. Beaches tend to occur where conditions favour their development and not where conditions are not right.

Every area of the coast has a sand budget, which is the amount of sand available to build beaches. The amount of sand coming into an area must be compared with the sand leaving in order to establish the propensity of the beach to either erode, accrete or be stable. Sand is stored in the dunes at the back of the beach, which can be small or large, held in ocean currents and sandbanks in the sea.

NATURAL FEATURES

The stability of beaches is helped by the existence of coral reefs, which form a protective barrier against storms because the storm waves often deplete sand from beaches. When you remove sand from one area of the coastline to the next, you reduce the sand budget in the source area. Simply put, to take sand away from an area already suffering from beach erosion is poor environmental management.

Beach sand is not all the same. Before sand can be added to a beach - so-called beach nourishment - thorough study must be done of the current and wave patterns, the shape (profile) of the beach, and the actual grain sizes and type of sand. If sand from one place does not match sand in another place and is just dumped there, it will likely not persist and may even affect other natural processes such as those carried out by very tiny organisms (meiofauna) that live between the grains of sand, or it could also affect turtle nesting.

Jamaica is suffering from beach erosion in many places because we have damaged the natural features and processes that build and maintain beaches. Our coral reefs are severely degraded, especially along the north coast, from overfishing, poor water quality and hurricanes. Dunes, mangroves and seagrasses have been removed and continue to be removed both legally and illegally.

Coastal structures such as groynes and breakwaters have been constructed, often without proper study, and these may further disrupt natural processes. Construction of buildings has often taken place too close to the high-water mark. Now, Jamaica faces the clear and present danger of sea-level rise associated with climate change, and our beaches are under immediate and serious threat.

CAREFUL APPROACH

Jamaica does need investors of all kinds, including in tourism, but we should not want them at any price. We should insist that investors obey our environmental laws. We should be taking the most careful approach to any form of coastal development, requiring wide and increasing setbacks from the high-water mark, restoration of lost coastal resources (dunes, mangroves, seagrasses, reefs), and there are parts of the coast from which managed retreat is going to be necessary.

Indeed, the new development order for the Negril and Green Island Area, passed in 2015, explicitly states:

"The extraction of onshore coastal sand will not be permitted except in exceptional circumstances, and sand extraction in such circumstances will be stringently controlled and removal confined to reuse in the area" (emphasis mine).

The questions as to whether what was taken was sand and whether its removal to another beach site needed an environmental permit are questions for the Natural Resources Conservation Authority and the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) to decide - they are Jamaica's lawfully constituted environmental regulatory bodies. In any event, if there was a debate about the required permits and licences, it should have taken place before sand was removed.

In this case, NEPA acted belatedly, but it has acted to protect the environment. The public should support the environment minister and NEPA and call for the sand, if, indeed it was sand, to be returned to Negril.

- Diana McCaulay is CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jamentrust@cwjamaica.com.