Tuesday, December 16, 2008

WHOO HOO! A Sand Committee (for a change...)

The Daily Gleaner of December 10th reports the setting up of ...oh wait! It's not a committee! Bad blogger! It's a "project team." This is, of course, entirely different from a committee...what? what's that? In what way is it different, you want to know? (Weary, condescending sigh.) Well, it's perfectly obvious that the term "project team" has two words, in fact, could even be described as a phrase, while "committee" is merely a single word. Now can we move on?

The Prime Minister has set up a project team "to examine solutions to the beach erosion problems now (! Now!? Must be a misprint...been a problem for at least two decades) threatening sections of the Negril coastline." The team will be "headed by the Minister of State for Project Implementation in the Office of the Prime Minister, Daryl Vaz (and) anchored by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA)." There are the usual attendees from civil society groups as well. What a relief. Sand is now sure to start behaving as the tourist industry dictates.

This project team has arisen out of a study by coastal engineers, Smith Warner, who told us what we already knew - the beach at Negril has been eroding at a rate of about one metre per year, due to "numerous causes," including poor water quality, excessive development, overfishing and the die off of coral reef communities. Hmm. I wonder if the Minister of State for Project Implementation is the best person to deal with "excessive development."

I was at the meeting in Negril when Smith Warner presented their findings. The hoteliers were conspicuous by their absence - about five were present, I believe, and only one or two were senior players. The consultant from Smith Warner did outline the reasons for the beach erosion - which were as stated above. Their solutions, however, were meat and drink for coastal engineers - groynes and breakwaters and beach "nourishment" - read taking (maybe even stealing...) sand from somewhere else, sometimes the sea floor - and the construction of reef reinforcing structures. Why not, I asked, ever the popular public meeting attendee, improve water quality, halt excessive development, and control fishing - all of which would result in a resurgence of the reef? Well, those could be done as well, the consultant conceded, but... He shrugged in an I'm-just-the-consultant way. I could have finished his sentence for him...that would mean much less work for coastal engineers. So maybe a year later, we now have a project team.

Definition of a beach? Sand in motion, guys, sand in motion. It's gonna wax and wane with seasons, currents, storms. It needs the beach vegetation and sea grasses for stability, it needs a living reef to protect it from storms. If we build groynes, mostly the sand will build up on one side and be depleted on the other. If we dredge to "nourish" a starving beach, we damage the organisms that live on the sea floor, as well as releasing silt around the dredge, only partially controlled by silt screens. If the "nourishers" bother to use silt screens at all.

Talk to anyone over a certain age in Negril and they'll tell you about the old beach - see Ivan Goodbody's 1956 photo above, how wide it was, how stable, how the morass drained in a series of small streams, about the bountiful fish catches. (They will also mention the mosquitoes.) No one listened as Negril was "developed" and then overdeveloped, while a few people tried to say, hey, this is a mistake. They're still not listening. In fact, mention the word "environment" and you're immediately accused of being anti development, anti people and anti job. A colleague recently seriously suggested we stop using the word. No, having learned nothing at all from our earlier mistakes, we've entered a new phase of development blitz - massive hotels in places where there are no beaches, but tourists must have a beach, we've planted in their minds a certain image of a tropical holiday, and a beach is non negotiable. So sand is now a hot commodity.

Are we worried, though? Nope. We've got a high level project team...

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