MAC: Mines and Communities

Europe's Coastlines Eroding Into the Sea

Published by MAC on 2004-05-19

It's not only in Asia that the pillaging of coastal sands for the construction industry (aggregates and cement) has wreaked a heavy toll on communities, fisheries, and marine resources.

A new report points to an appalling attrition on European coasts - not only because of the galloping demand for new roads, bridges, office blocks, etc - but this is mentioned as a key factor.

Europe's Coastlines Eroding Into the Sea

Environmental News Service (ENS)

May 19, 2004

Brussels, Belgium - A fifth of the coastline of the newly enlarged European Union is eroding away, in a few dramatic cases as much as 15 meters (49 feet) a year, according to the most comprehensive study ever done on the problem of human-induced erosion.The report "Living with Coastal Erosion in Europe: Sediment and Space for Sustainability," was commissioned by the European Commission, and made public on Monday.

Coastal erosion has dramatic effects upon the environment and on human activity. It can make houses fall into the sea and destroy roads and other infrastructure. It threatens habitats of wildlife, the safety of people living at the coast, and economic activities such as tourism.

The three countries with the greatest percentages of eroded coastlines are all in the new member states - in Poland 55 percent of the coast is eroded, in Cyprus 37.8 percent, and in Latvia 32.8 percent.

Many of the eroded sites are rich in biodiversity and represent important ecosystems. Most of these sites are part of the EU's NATURA 2000 network of protected areas. Erosion is placing human lives at risk. Over the past 50 years, the population living in coastal municipalities in the EU has more than doubled to 70 million people - 16 percent of the EU25 population. They are increasingly exposed to the risk of erosion and flooding. During the worst sea surge recorded in modern European history, the North Sea Surge in 1953, more than 2,000 people lost their lives in England and the Netherlands.

Intensive development and use of sand for construction and engineering are some of the major causes of erosion. Rising sea levels and increasingly frequent storms and floods have worsened the problem, the report finds.

Each year, 100 million metric tons of sand that used to naturally replenish coastal habitats in Europe are used for construction, trapped behind river dams or blocked by engineering works, according to the report. "Natural areas, a buffer for the powers of the sea, are disappearing," it states.

To cope with erosion, new and sustainable forms of coastal management are needed. The results and recommendations of the study were discussed at an international conference in Brussels Tuesday. They will inform the EU's forthcoming Thematic Strategy on Soil due in spring 2005.

"We need to safeguard our coast much better," said Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom. "It protects people from the forces of the sea, it is an important habitat for many animals and plants, and it is economically important - many people derive great pleasure from spending their holidays at the seaside."

Coastal areas perform several important functions. Coastal habitats such as mud flats, salt marshes, sandy beaches and sand dunes are valuable for wildlife. Dunes are an excellent natural flood barrier and natural filter for drinking water.

And salt marshes absorb wave energy during storm surges, thereby counteracting erosion. Beaches and beautiful coastlines are an essential asset for the tourism industry.

"The Commission will increase its efforts to ensure sustainable coastal management," Wallstrom said. "But I also appeal to the national, regional and local authorities in charge to do their utmost to stop the erosion process." "In the future," she said, "development projects along rivers and on the coast have to be much better screened for their impact on coastal erosion. This will require more cooperation across borders in Europe."

The effects of coastal erosion differ across Europe. Two thirds of the Belgian coast is composed of sandy beaches and the remaining third is sealed by construction. As a result, one quarter of the Belgian coastline is eroding, which is a high rate in comparison to other countries.

Italy also suffers from a high rate of erosion, 23 percent, which is largely due to the rapid urbanisation of its coasts and beaches. On the other hand, the Finnish coastline is hardly affected because half of it is composed of hard rock, which erodes very slowly.

The study makes four recommendations to cope with coastal erosion in Europe.

Strengthen coastal resilience by restoring the sediment balance. This will require identifying areas where essential sediment processes occur, and identifying strategic sediment reservoirs from where sediment can be taken without endangering the natural balance.

Taking the cost of coastal erosion into account in planning and investment decisions. Public responsibility for possible risks and damage restoration should be limited and partly transferred to the direct beneficiaries and investors. This would result in a higher degree of care. In addition, risks should be identified and incorporated into planning and investment policies. Coastal erosion concerns should be taken account of in Environmental Impact Assessments as well as coastal management.

Make responses to coastal erosion pro-active and planned. Instead of the current piecemeal approach to "fix" coastal erosion when it happens, a long-term and more planned approach is needed. It should be based on regional coastal sediment management plans aimed at restoring coastal resilience. The plans should comprehensively assess what is at stake and what the costs and consequences of different policy options - protect - do nothing - abandon the area - are.

Strengthen the knowledge base of coastal erosion management and planning to ensure informed decisions and the application of best practice.

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