Along with mangroves, wet grasslands, and coral reefs, sandy beaches are natural elements offering coastal protection by buffering the impact of storm surges caused by hurricanes and other extreme weather events.
As such, beyond constituting one of the preferred recreational options of a large part of the Cuban population, particularly during the holiday season, safeguarding this valuable ecosystem is a matter of the highest priority for the country.
An additional factor is the risk arising from the gradual rise in average sea level. In the waters surrounding the island, this rise has been on the order of 6.77 centimeters since 1966 to date, while projections indicate that it could reach up to 27cm in 2050 and 85cm in 2100.
Thus it is no surprise that Task 1 and more specifically, Task 3, of the State Plan for Confronting Climate Change, approved by the Council of Ministers in April, involve measures and projects aimed at conserving, maintaining, and recovering sandy beaches across the Cuban archipelago, prioritizing those dedicated to tourism, and reducing the existing vulnerabilities in surrounding properties.
In addition to representing a serious danger to small island states, average sea level rise is one of the main causes of erosion in many coastal areas of the world.
The process has adversely affected the environmental quality of several beaches on the west and southern coasts of the United States, Jamaica, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Spain, South America and the Black Sea area, to name just a few examples, where the actions of human beings also contribute to the deterioration of natural conditions.
As D.Sc. José Luis Juanes, senior researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences, told Granma, studies developed within the Macro Project on Coastal Hazards and Vulnerability for the years 2050 and 2100, confirmed that the erosion of Cuban beaches is widespread, with an estimated average coastal erosion rate of 1.2 meters per year, which may be higher in certain areas; a figure similar to that reported for the Caribbean region.
The causes, he explained, are largely due to the aforementioned increase in average sea level, combined with strong swells associated with the passage of meteorological phenomena of considerable intensity, and shortfalls in sand producing sources.
Another key factor is historically harmful practices, which damaged the physical stability of beaches, mainly constructions built over natural dunes, the extraction of sand for construction purposes, and the incorrect design and location of jetties and docks, Dr. Juanes noted.
According to the results of the most recent updated studies by Cuban scientists, at the end of 2016, the total number of beaches included on the national registry relating to this type of ecosystem was 499 (in 2015 the figure was 454); while of the 257 that have been technically evaluated, 85% show signs of erosion.
Likewise, the disappearance of ten sandy beaches, such as the cases of Majana, Guanímar, Cajío, Mayabeque, Rosario, and La Pepilla, located to the south of the provinces of Artemisa and Mayabeque, was confirmed. As well as suffering the impacts of human activity over a long period, these beaches were severally affected by the swells caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, leaving them practically devoid of sand.
Among the most notable evidence of such impacts is the existence of numerous fallen and damaged trees in the sea.
It was also found that with the passage of intense hurricanes, coastal flooding surpasses the sand dunes in several parts of the country. This tendency leads to the transfer of sand to interior lagoons, causing significant changes to the coastline.
The monitoring carried out between October, 2015, and the same month of 2016, showed that at all the beaches visited, the morphological structure of sand dunes had been conserved, noting the extension and increase in vegetation, which, Dr. José Luis Juanes asserted, reflects several consecutive years without the occurrence of extreme erosive events in the areas studied.
But sedimentological studies of sand at the beaches evaluated that year, demonstrated the predominance of medium sized grains of sand, with a biogenic composition including a high degree of sedimentary maturity, something that could be interpreted as a sign of a natural deficit in the supply of new material to form these beaches, he commented.
All the knowledge accumulated on the subject, and especially the experiences gained from works initiated in 1987 aimed at the recovery of the sections of Varadero beach affected by erosion, that have allowed, among other favorable impacts, the expansion and maintenance of strips of sand used by bathers, with required quality indicators, demonstrate that Cuba has the capacity to take on the challenge of implementing measures that lead to the comprehensive recovery and conservation of its sandy beaches.
The list of those beaches that will be subjected to this type of work in the short term includes, among others, Majana, Guanímar, Cajío, Mayabeque, Caimito, Tasajera, Guanabo, Veneciana, Salinas, Caracol beach on Cayo Las Brujas, and Playa Larga on Cayo Coco.