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Relocate Negril hotels, says scientist

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate editor -- Features thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, May 14, 2014    

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A local scientist who specialises in sedimentary geology believes the ultimate solution to the problems being faced by hoteliers and other stakeholders worried about erosion of the famous seven-mile stretch of white sand beach in Negril is to relocate their tourist activity.

Professor Simon Mitchell, who heads the Geography and Geology Department at the University of the West Indies, told the Jamaica Observer yesterday that given the predictions for climate change and sea level rise, Government's plan to introduce a breakwater system to slow the rate of erosion will only have limited results.

Breakwater systems are primarily wire-meshed stones designed to slow oncoming waves, which eat away at the shoreline.

"The final solution to this is not going to be very nice. In the end, we're going to have to move it because sea level is going to rise. It's a question of how long you're going to look at maintaining a beach along there at all.

"If you think about where the road is, it's not very far above the actual beach and predictions of sea level rise are there. Each time it rises in increments, it's going to put more stress on the beach. So, if you've had three or four centimetres of sea level rise we're going to have big problems," he said.

Using the example of an undeveloped beach in St Thomas on which one of his grad students conducted a study, Professor Mitchell said that the shoreline had moved 10 metres over a five-year period which was evidence that all "beaches want to do is move inland".

"But if you've got a series of hotels, they can't move inland, so all that happens is that they eventually get washed away."

If he were in Government's shoes though, the professor said he would go with the 2007 Smith Warner report and implement both a breakwater system as well as beach nourishment, but as temporary measures. He cautioned, however, that there would first need to be an assessment of how much sand is being produced in the area.

The planned project has been the subject of much controversy since late last month when a group of hoteliers from Negril staged a press conference in Kingston to register their disapproval of the plans. They argued that the breakwaters would be unsightly and would turn tourists away. They claimed, too, that the boulders which would make up the breakwater system would not be harnessed to the seafloor and would pose a threat to their properties in the event of storm surges or hurricanes.

They appear to favour beach nourishment, the name given to the process of transporting sand from elsewhere to the eroding beach. But Mitchell argued that the measure is expensive and ineffective because the sand brought in will also be subject to erosion and perhaps at a faster rate, particularly if it is done in the absence of a breakwater system.

Some sources go as far as saying nourished beaches can be eroded in the space of two years.

Countering the hoteliers' claims, Chief Executive Officer of the National Environment and Planning Agency Peter Knight said the breakwaters would be submerged about 1.5 kilometres from the shore. He said, too, that beach nourishment would be part of the "medium-to-long-term" mitigation mix.

"The installation of the breakwaters is of critical importance to the protection of the Negril community. (They) will reduce wave action, protect the coastline and allow for beach accretion. We are also confident that they will resuscitate activities in the community and enhance the tourism product," he said in an opinion piece which was published in both newspapers last week.

But Mitchell insists that the measures can only be temporary and are hinged on how much sand is being produced on the beach in question.

"The breakwater would be there to try to prevent the movement of the sand; to trytrap sand. Obviously, what happens with sand is it gradually gets broken down over time, so you can't trap sand if no new sand is being produced. In that scenario, you could actually feed the beach with additional sand so I think the reality is what is the sand budget on that beach. Is enough sand being produced and if not how are you going to get around working with that? If sand is not being produced you've got a problem.

"It is a temporary measure and if your problem is that there's not enough sand being produced to begin with, then all you're doing is way-laying the problem," Mitchell argued.

Speaking to beach nourishment itself, Mitchell said it was a feasible option "if you've got enough money to keep throwing at it".

"If you go and nourish the beach and you get a hurricane this year, then the storm is going to move it all offshore and it doesn't come back. If we don't get a hurricane or tidal waves associated with a system for five years, then

maybe that's a good solution, but if we get it this year and you spend US$5 million or US$10 million nourishing a beach that would just be the end of it and you'd have to go back and do it again,"he told the Observer.

According to Knight, the Negril shoreline has eroded some 62 metres over the last 45 years. This has been attributed to natural wind and wave action, the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and other storms, as well as to man's activities, including unplanned developments, removal of vegetation such as seagrass beds,and marine pollution.

Addressing the public spat between NEPA and the hoteliers, chairman of the Negril area Environment Protection Trust Kenrick

Davis told the Observer yesterday that there was no need for a fight.

"I think we're going about things the incorrect way. My take on it is that we should be sitting down with NEPA and talking to them about what our grouses are.

"I think NEPA is trying to help. I don't think they are going out there putting in a breakwater because they want to put in a breakwater or because they want to spend some money. ...If stakeholders are unhappy with what NEPA is doing, I think we need to sit down in a room and talk about it and see how it can be modified to suit a Negril situation," Davis said.

"I'm not one for fighting if there isn't a battle. What we need in Negril is to have our beach return to what it used to be say 30 years ago," he added.

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