Tue | Jul 26, 2016

Talking Negril beach to death

Published:Monday | May 26, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Horseback riders along the Negril shoreline. Battle lines have been drawn between hoteliers and engineers over the construction of breakwaters as a solution to beach erosion in the resort town. FILE
Ravidya Burrowes, Guest Columnist
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By Ravidya Burrowes, Guest Columnist

There is no question that breakwaters will reduce the vulnerability of the Long Bay beach to storm-related erosion. The breakwater options now under consideration represent a substantial improvement on the earlier designs. The present design focuses on the most vulnerable sections of the bay, and also takes into consideration financial and environmental costs. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) is now available for public review and comment at the National Environment and Planning Agency website.

Relocating the hotels and tourism activity is not a very realistic solution to saving the beach at Negril. Long Bay Beach at Negril is worth preserving because of the economic potential it brings to the country, precisely because of the tourism activity and hotels. Understanding the fact that our people have an inalienable right to earn a living and to develop their property, and showing the way to do this sustainably is the challenging role of the responsible environmental scientist.

We do not need to wait to see how much sand is being produced to do something about reducing the vulnerability of the beach to storm activity. Researchers can conduct long-term academic studies, while others do what they can now to address the immediate needs.

Coastal engineering studies have demonstrated that the 2013 National Works Agency breakwater proposal has the potential to not only stop erosion, but to help the beach to slowly build back, even within the predicted sea-level rise scenarios. With the installation of breakwaters, it is more likely that beach nourishment will be a very cost-effective option, particularly if the sand is sourced from offshore deposits located within the Negril area.

Climate change-driven beach erosion in Negril is not just about sea level rise. Various studies have suggested that there are sections of Long Bay Beach that are more vulnerable to erosion from seasonal storms. Moreover, there is a cycle of winter beach erosion and summer accretion (growth). In both cases, the beach is taking longer and longer to recover. This may be caused by a number of factors, including the degradation of ecosystems that support producers of sand, as well as changes in back-beach hydrology arising from the intense land use between the morass and the shoreline.

Declining freshwater outflows, a consequence of evaporative losses from higher temperatures and decreased rainfall, are also likely to have an impact on the nearshore ecosystems, which may, in turn, also have a deleterious impact on the sand producers.

The Great Morass

This is already having a major impact on the health of the Great Morass, located east of the Norman Manley Highway in Negril. Before there were roads and hotels, the morass served a critical function to protect the quality of the water reaching the seagrass and coral reef ecosystems. That is still happening, although it may be out of sight, deep beneath the foundations of the road and hotels.

Ensuring that storm run-offs from the built areas are routed to the morass is important to the morass health, but can also help to prevent beach scouring and declining nearshore water quality. There is also very good evidence that beach drainage/ dewatering can prevent erosion. The beach and the morass together form a complex unit that should not be separated, and seemingly small positive counteractions can count in some way that we perhaps won't understand for a long time.

The important thing is that we need to take those actions, and not keep second-guessing ourselves while more and more ground is quite literally lost.

Dr Ravidya Burrowes is a coastal sedimentologist who has practised as an EIA specialist and environmental geologist for over 20 years in Jamaica and the Caribbean. She recently completed a pro bono technical review of the EIA for the proposed Negril breakwaters. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.