Right on the border between the provinces of Malaga and Granada is one of the most amazing places in Spain. The Maro-Cerro Gordo Cliffs natural area is a system of coves, cliffs and semi-enclosed beaches that attract tens of thousands of tourists every year. And you can see it. Wow if you notice. The levels of sunscreen creams in the water they are so tall that not only pose a “significant danger” to marine biodiversity, but also to human health.
And this is just one of the 48 examples of environmental disasters that the ‘Black Flags’ report of Ecologists in Action; but the problem goes much further. Spain’s beaches are a central resource for the country’s largest industry and, unfortunately, they are poorly managed. How long will they be able to withstand the rate of degradation to which we subject them?
The coastal problem, in numbers. “More than 50% of the beaches and 70% of the dunes on the Spanish coast are degraded or deeply altered; 60% of the wetlands that existed in 1950 have disappeared; more than 60% of the immediate environment of the beaches of the Mediterranean, South Atlantic and archipelago coasts is urbanized”, this analysis of Miguel A. Losadaprofessor at the University of Granada, is now a decade old, but has not lost an iota of validity.
This is spatially sensitive because the human degradation that Losada talks about is added to the natural erosion. “A phenomenon that affects 70% of the coasts worldwide”, Explain Jorge Guillen, researcher at the Barcelona Institute of Marine Sciences. “A beach in balance is one in which the sand that leaves and the one that arrives have a similar volume. They are the exception; they normally tend to grow or disappear.” And the latter is what happens on hundreds of Spanish beaches and what forces us to spend huge budgetary resources on moving sand from one place to another.
Why is this happening now? It is not something new. The phenomenon of growth and disappearance of beaches is something that has been happening for millions of years; the difference is that now it interacts (and a lot) with the economy. Especially since the sediments that reach the sea (and, therefore, circulate along the beaches) are substantially less now than before. There are four factors for this: the first are the reservoirs. Spain has 1,300 operating reservoirs. This means that the amount of sediment that the rivers previously dragged towards the sea is much less due to the alterations in their channels.
The second is the urbanization of the coast. As we said above, up to 70% of the dunes are highly degraded and up to 60% of the wetlands have disappeared. Both dunes and marshes were systems that “fed” the natural cycle of the beaches; What’s more, they were systems that protected the coast from erosion: the rapid urbanization that we have suffered since the 1960s has destroyed a good part of these systems.
Third, the ‘traditional’ remedy to these problems (ie the construction of ports, dikes and groynes) in turn alters the transport capacity of the sediments. And since they are usually built with a local perspective, they often cause problems on a regional scale. And finally, also linked to environmental management problems, is the “massive destruction of posidonia meadows in the Mediterranean since the 1970s”. Uncontrolled discharges into the sea have left the seabed without the structure that fixed it.
The countdown begins. In this context, we live in a kind of whiting that bites its own tail: historically, efforts to maintain beaches have ended up contributing to increasing problems. And this is only the beginning. If (as everything seems to indicate) extreme weather events continue to grow, the disappearance of beaches will be much more common (and the budget dedicated to it, increasing).
We have lived (and have built a huge industry) on something we thought was “renewable” and limitless. Now we begin to see that this is not the case. It is no longer just that climate change may end up remove summer tourism from our beaches. It is that now we begin to see that we need more and more resources to save natural areas from tourism, fishing and hotel activities. If we don’t do it (or if we don’t rethink the tourist model) the black flags will end up taking over the entire coast.