Batemans Bay, Australia – Environmental defender Paul May is worried.
He is worried about climate change. He is worried about the lack of government funding for environmental initiatives. And now he is also worried that the coronavirus pandemic will slow down vital actions to protect the coast of Australia.
“We are a little worried – we are experiencing a forest fire, and now the latest crisis with coronavirus, the core will suffer,” May said from her home in South Durras, a small town near the Batemans Bay on the south coast of New South Wales (NSW).
As a result of COVID-19, UN Climate Summit 2020 has been canceled, while US President Donald Trump has taken the opportunity to solve it return emission regulations although research shows correlation between air pollution and coronavirus death.
May is a founding member of Landcare South Durras from Landcare, a grassroots movement that was founded throughout Australia in the late 1980s to manage environmental problems in local communities. He knew that when the government faced financial problems, funding for environmental programs was often cut because they looked like easy targets.
“The things that are funded first are programs for the environment and the arts,” he said. “The things that people think we can survive without. They underestimate our beach.”
The Australian Coastal Council Association agrees that the country must act as soon as possible to reduce the impact of erosion.
“What we are seeing now is a serious decline in tourism in Australia with a coronavirus,” Executive Director, Alan Stokes, told Al Jazeera.
“But if we lose our coast, it will be a disaster.”
Sandy beaches are the country’s first line of defense against storms and floods. Protecting them is very important in urban areas, where beaches cannot shift to land due to infrastructure and houses.
Beaches are naturally eroded and change with storm events, but climate change means they are changing faster than before. New research reported in the journal Natural Climate Change shows that Australia could lose 15,000 km of beaches by 2100.
“Beaches are a naturally dynamic environment,” explains Hannah Power, a senior lecturer at Newcastle University’s School of Environmental Sciences and Life. “They have overcome the previous changes, but one of the big challenges now is that we have built many cities around the coast.”
The problem, Power explains, is that humans like to live by the beach, and often this means there is no “buffer zone” between the development and the beach itself. The beach cannot go beyond land as usual, leading to dramatic scenes such as the one at Collaroy-Narrabeen Beach in Sydney in 2016 where ponds and houses are left hanging on sharp sand cliffs after a big storm.
“Erosion can happen very quickly in a storm,” Power said. “With a storm, sand is transported offshore to sand dunes. When conditions are calm, smaller waves transport sand back ashore. But it takes 10 times longer to return the sand than to displace it.”
“In the developed area, [what happens] will depend on how we reduce erosion and what path of climate change we take. This means we must immediately do something. “
The importance of sand dunes
Power said the dune was like a savings account that “the beach can sink when there is a big weather event”. Can describe it as a “balance zone”.
The ferocious coastline threatens marine life in England
May was involved in the founding of Dunecare – the predecessor of Landcare in South Durras – in the 1980s after storms destroyed NSW beaches and sand dunes.
“Sand dunes are seen as no man’s land,” May explained. “Nobody takes care of them.”
Dunecare began planting local vegetation on sand dunes to secure them, and thanks to their proactive response, the beaches are now in relatively good condition.
With people like May, South Durras is lucky. Many areas are not that lucky. Most beach care is funded and managed by local councils and while volunteer groups such as Landcare are very important, their funds come and go as the government wishes.
Volunteer-run programs also depend heavily on citizen involvement, which means that more remote areas such as Victoria’s Gippsland region, which was devastated by forest fires this summer, received less attention.
In addition, some residents are divided between protecting the beach and ensuring their financial investment in a safe house.
“This is an emotional problem,” Power commented. “It’s really related to Australian culture that we spend time on the beach, we want to live close to the beach. Almost every major Australian city is on an estuary or river.”
Maybe agree and say people need to realize that this environment is not something that can be taken for granted.
“Surely there are still some selfish attitudes – you know, ‘there are no good beach blocks unless there is a view’. Historically some local councils have even been used to allow construction on sand dunes, like in [Queensland’s] Gold Coast. “
Power says there is still time to act to prevent further damage to our coast, but the gap is accelerating.
“The best thing we can do is take clear, significant and definite actions to reduce our carbon emissions,” he said. “But because there is momentum in the climate system, we will see sea level rise even if we can turn off all carbon emissions tomorrow … so we need to plan effectively.”
Community-based decision making is key, and difficult options such as planned retreats – where a city moves far from the coast – can be considered in several areas.
“We cannot do anything, for example, which is very affordable but has very significant consequences,” Power said. “We can do planned retreats. We can do soft engineering such as maintaining the beach, putting sand to the beach from other places to replace those lost due to erosion. Or we can do hard engineering like the sea wall.”
Communities in urban locations such as Collaroy-Narrabeen Beach or Port Beach in Fremantle, Western Australia, must make serious decisions quickly.
“Rising sea temperatures are responsible for increasingly extreme weather events and that means wave energy is far greater,” said the Stokes Association of the Coastal Council of Australia.
“In Collaroy-Narrabeen, for example, we see the beach as wide as 100 meters (109 yards) reduced to 25 meters. Meanwhile, Port Beach has been so eroded that it threatens buildings.”
More than 650,000 Australian dollars ($ 439,720) have been allocated by state and city governments to build a stone wall as a temporary measure to protect infrastructure around Port Beach.
Western Australian Transport Minister Rita Saffioti said this would buy time to develop and implement a long-term approach. However, many are worried that the government’s response is lacking speed and adequate funding.
“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates a rise in sea level of 0.8 million by 2100. We need to start planning now seriously how we will respond to that,” Stokes said.
“The federal government says under the constitution, this is a state problem, but the state government does not have funds – the commonwealth has funds, countries have gained power and councils have got problems.”
The University of Newcastle’s Power recognizes that difficult decisions must be taken.
“Everyone wants to keep their sandy beaches as they are, but we cannot realistically do this everywhere … But if sea level rises even just half a meter, more than 50,000 homes can be exposed throughout Australia.”
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