BARCELONA – In some municipalities along the Catalan coast, sandy beaches are disappearing. Climate change and the construction of infrastructure and buildings without taking into account the characteristics of the area lead to large-scale sand loss.
The newspaper El Diario quotes Juan Manuel. An immigrant from Galicia who has lived in Catalonia since the 1970s. In Montgat (Barcelona) he went for a walk on the beach every day right after sunrise. But that is no longer possible because the sea has swallowed the sand. The waves regularly reach the train tracks. Some routes are life-threatening when it storms.
500 metres over from two kilometres of beach
Montgat used to have two kilometres of beaches. However, only 500 metres remain. This fate does not only befall this congregation. The problem affects many other municipalities along the Catalan coast. They have lost their bathing area or seen its surface disappear. Data from the Barcelona Metropolitan Area (AMB) indicates that the current season started with 15% less sand.
20% Permanent sand loss from 2014 to 2017
This situation has been going on since 2014. From that year on, storms became more frequent and more intense. In addition, the currents and tides began to change. This wreaked havoc on beaches that had remained intact until then. The permanent sand loss from 2014 to 2017 was 20%.
Beach accesses closed
A lot of sand was also lost on Badalona beach. Some beach accesses are therefore closed. It forces the affected municipalities to request extraordinary measures from the Ministry of Ecological Transition, responsible for transferring sand to the most affected beaches. These actions were halted because they were considered ‘unreasonable costs’ after €170 million had been invested since 2014 to replenish 600,000 cubic metres of sand.
The price per cubic metre of sand is €6.00. About 30,000 cubic metres of sand are lost every year. That means that the sea has already swallowed more than €1.5 billion in the past ten years.
These are not just economic losses. The transport of sand is also not recommended for environmental reasons. “It’s the most widely accepted solution since the 1980s, but there are important issues. If you remove the sand from the sunken zone, the impact on the ecosystem is irreversible,” explains Joan Vilaplana. He is the director of the georisk observatory of the Col·legi de Geolegs de Catalunya.
Another option is to use sand from beaches with a surplus. But this solution is not good either. “Replenishing on a regressive coast makes no sense. Especially because when removing the earth, the loss is greater than the contribution,” explains Daniel Palacios, head of the AMB beach service. According to him, 150 cubic meters of sand are lost for every 100 cubic meters added.
Deterioration of the beaches is inevitable
According to experts, the decline of the beaches is inevitable. For the most part, it is because “we have urbanized the coast very badly and the sea is now taking back what it owns,” says Vilaplana. The construction of houses, marinas, promenades, artificial beaches, or railway lines has taken place over the years “without taking into account the dynamics of the coast”. “Many businesses have been built where there used to be a beach and a beach has been created where there used to be the sea,” Palacios sums up.
Artificial barriers against severe weather are less satisfactory
That doesn’t just mean that the sea is regaining ground. Also that by changing the structure of the coast, the elements that protect against storms have been removed. Instead of the natural barriers that existed, others have been constructed artificially. That is more harmful than useful. An example is scaffolding or walls made of cement. “When a wave hits a natural beach, the energy disappears into the sand. But when we build barriers, the shock energy is concentrated. This ensures that the wave carries more land towards the sea,” says Vilaplana.
“We need to rethink the coastline from head to toe”
This happens especially in Montgat. In addition to the breakwaters, a railway line has also been built close to the coast. However, the sea has been coming dangerously close to the tracks for years. That is why more walls are being built. According to Daniel Palacios — head of the WBA beach service, that makes the problem worse. “We need to rethink the coastline from head to toe. We need to move roads, boardwalks, and houses because many areas will be flooded in 50 years.” Vilaplana bases his forecast on that of the IPCC climate report. This takes into account the course of the temperature rise.
Barcelona needs a beach
In Barcelona, the possible rise in sea level would be most noticeable. Most of the beaches in the city are man-made and were built before the Olympics. An area was reformed that prevented contact with the sea. Aitor Rumín is head of the Beach Operational Management Department of the Barcelona City Council. He explains that the result of this is that the beaches that are a major attraction for tourists are untenable. The city’s sand management system costs €60,000 per year. They remain more or less stable every season, but as soon as there is severe weather with high waves they are (partly) swallowed.
According to Rumin, it is clear that Barcelona must have a beach. In order not to lose the beach, the city council is therefore studying other “soft” measures to redesign the promenades and ensure that the sand stays where it is.
Causes also in the interior
But for the geologist Josep Vilaplana, these solutions are not enough. “To save the coastline we don’t just have to look at the sea,” he says. According to this scientist, a large part of the causes of the lack of sand lies in the interior. “What makes it possible for there to be beaches are natural factors such as rivers. And when we build on the riverbeds, they don’t add sediment to the sea,” says Vilaplana.