Sat | Mar 25, 2017

The Negril breakwater controversy

Published:Tuesday | March 29, 2016 | 3:00 AMDavid Smith & Jamel Banton
Contributed Tourists walk along a badly erodedd resort-lined beach in Negril.

For the past year, there has been a tug-of-war between Government of Jamaica agencies, which are proponents of breakwaters at Negril, and the stakeholders, who wish to have the beach widened and no other intervention.

So whose perspective is correct? Or are there some facts that have not been fully aired?

The reality is that both sides do have valid points, but the issue needs to be examined in more detail.

First, the breakwaters should not be expected to result in the rebuilding and widening of the beach on their own. And, if they do result in some build-up of sand (an unlikely event), the question to ask would be: "Whose beachfront was this sand taken from?"

The function of the breakwaters should be to reduce the impact of storm waves from winter northers and from hurricanes, as opposed to widening the beach. In order to achieve this objective, they need to be quite wide, so they can function in a similar way to coral reefs.

If, on the other hand, we want to widen (repair) the beach in a relatively short period of time, it may be possible to dredge sand from offshore and place this sand on to the eroded beach. The offshore zone of Negril is likely to have more than the required amount of sand (this can be easily verified by a proper survey). This sand will never come back naturally on to the shore, so it is an excellent source for this type of intervention.

The downside to this approach, however, is that when winter swells or storms do occur, some of the placed sand gets carried offshore to deeper water and will be lost to the beach. History tells us that sections of Long Bay have been losing beach at an average rate of one metre per year over the past 30 years. However, the influence of climate change (rising sea levels and more intense storms) could significantly speed up this rate of beach loss.

Monitoring would, therefore, have to be carried out to advise the frequency of beach renourishment. Typically, for artificially nourished beaches worldwide, this maintenance frequency ranges from five to 20 years, depending on the frequency of storms.

COMBINE APPROACHES

In small island developing states such as ours, with a poorly established culture of maintenance, the optimum solution is a combination of the two approaches. Widen the beach through sand nourishment (dredged from offshore), thereby allowing the stakeholders to see immediate benefits, in tandem with the construction of well-designed breakwaters that will reduce the wave energy at the shoreline during storms. The breakwaters will provide much-needed protection to the repaired beach, significantly reducing the need for ongoing maintenance.

This ideal solution will obviously cost more, but this project would appear to be an excellent candidate for a public-private partnership. The government agencies, through multilateral climate change-adaptation funding, could pay for the breakwater construction and the hoteliers could pay for the sand nourishment to repair the beach.

We had proposed in our 2008 report that by applying a US$1-per-night per room tax, sufficient funds could be raised to finance a loan to cover the cost of the dredging. It is expected that a large dredge will be coming to Jamaica in the near future to do work in Kingston Harbour. This is an opportunity on which the stakeholders could piggyback to save the usually high cost of mobilisation.

It's worth a try and the various parties need to investigate this properly. Negril is too important an asset to our country, people and tourism product to let it continue to erode while we bicker.

Time to get moving!

- Dr David A.Y. Smith and Jamel D. Banton are directors of Smith Warner International, a regional coastal engineering firm based in Kingston, with offices in St Lucia and Vancouver, Canada. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and david@smithwarner.com.