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ENVIRONMENT-URUGUAY: Invasion of the Sand Dunes

Inés Acosta

CIUDAD DE LA COSTA, Uruguay, Jul 1 2009 (IPS) - "A road used to run through here, the sidewalk was over there, and this was the neighbour’s yard. That was an esplanade where people parked their cars, and that area over there was a plaza," says Jackeline, pointing to enormous sand dunes that have swallowed up everything, even entire trees.

For over 20 years, Jackeline has lived in Ciudad de la Costa (City of the Coast), a municipality in the Uruguayan province of Canelones that is basically made up of a series of small beach resorts that stretch out along the coast of the Río de la Plata (River Plate) estuary eastwards of Montevideo, the capital.

Like thousands of other residents of coastal areas in this small South American country wedged between Brazil and Argentina, she has directly experienced the effects of the loss of coastline and the encroachment of sandbanks.

"We worked hard to get the municipal government to remove some of the sand so people could get into their houses, and they came several times, but it didn’t take long for a huge dune to form again in the same place," she tells IPS.

Integrated management

The EcoPlata Programme, a long-term multi-institutional approach launched in 1997, involves local communities, academia, the national government and municipal authorities in activities focused on integrated coastal zone management in Uruguay.

According to EcoPlata coordinator Mónica Gómez, the project "foments sustainable development in coastal and marine areas in order to contribute, by means of integrated management, to improving the quality of life of local populations, achieving the harmonious development of productive activities and ensuring the conservation of ecosystems and natural resources."

The project has support and financing from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

"Each removal operation, using huge machinery, cost 20,000 dollars, but it didn’t fix the underlying problem," says Jackeline, while beyond the big sand dune can be heard the sounds of motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), which wreak havoc on the environment along the coast.

Seventy percent of Uruguay’s population of 3.3 million lives along the country’s more than 700 km of coastline on the Río de la Plata and Atlantic Ocean, with 1.45 million in Montevideo alone.

The country’s wide sandy beaches are its main draw for tourism, principally from neighbouring Argentina, but also from Brazil, Chile and other countries.

The coastal area also concentrates 75 percent of GDP, and more than two-thirds of economic activity and revenues generated in the country have a direct or indirect link with the coastal zone.

Tourism and fishing account for 90 percent of revenues in the coastal area, according to the Geo Uruguay 2008 report produced by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Over the last 10 years, high rates of urban growth along Uruguay’s southeast coast have led to major expansion of the population, especially in two of the country’s 19 departments (provinces): Canelones and Maldonado, to the east of Montevideo.

Maldonado is home to Punta del Este, one of South America's most exclusive resort destinations, 140 km from the capital.

Urban sprawl

The string of small resort towns making up Ciudad de la Costa, which fill up with vacationers from Montevideo and Argentina every summer, are home to 120,000 year-round residents.

Ciudad de la Costa had the highest demographic growth rate in all of Latin America in the 1990s, with the expansion of the population consisting mainly of commuters from Montevideo.

But infrastructure and the provision of basic services did not keep up, and city planning was inadequate, which means the growth had an even more drastic impact on the coast, where cliffs are retreating, beaches are flooded by storm water runoff from the towns, and houses and roads are collapsing or being covered by encroaching sandbanks.

The permanent residents are joined by the more than two million foreign tourists who visit the country every year, nearly 80 percent of whom choose the beaches as their chief destination, choosing from a wide variety of hotels, cabins or beach homes.

Reports on the situation in Uruguay’s coastal districts show that they are far from reaching the goal of ensuring environmental sustainability – one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the United Nations member countries in 2000.

Economic activity and development in coastal areas – due to plantation forestry, urban expansion, and the growth of infrastructure – is leading to marked environmental deterioration of the marine and coastal ecosystems, says Geo Uruguay 2008.

The report on the state of the environment in Uruguay mentions major problems like erosion, the unregulated extraction of sand and interference with natural sedimentation processes on at least 40 beaches along the coast.

The authors of the report warn that, aggravated by the negative impact of human activity, the coast has become vulnerable to the climate change phenomena that are already being felt in Uruguay, like the rise in sea level, unusually severe storms and increasingly strong winds.

According to the most dire predictions, if something is not done, Uruguay’s coastline will lose much of its attraction over the coming decade, and the tourist industry will suffer.

Geologist César Goso, a professor at the science faculty of the public University of the Republic, told IPS that coastal degradation has been going on for a long time in Uruguay, in the form of erosion on one hand and sedimentation on the other.

"Erosion is a product of the action of the tides, the wind and other factors that lead to the loss of soil and land," he explained. "As a result, the cliffs retreat, which has already destroyed paved roads and led to the collapse of houses.

"Sedimentation, meanwhile, is the opposite process: all of the material that erodes in one place builds up in another. This results in the accumulation of sand in inhabited areas, encroaching on houses and streets."

Goso said these phenomena have always occurred, but that the human presence along the coastlines has accelerated them and turned them into a risk, due to the effects on housing and other infrastructure.

Studies show that one metre of coastline a year is currently being lost.

Community reaction

Urban expansion along the coast has been poorly planned, said Goso. "Lots were sold haphazardly in areas subject to erosion and the buildup of sand. When these people built their houses and moved in, they didn’t know that 20 years down the road they would be in trouble.

"Local residents are alarmed because they see what’s coming, and they realise an immediate response is needed, to curb the process," he added, referring to the citizens’ movement pressing for measures against environmental damages.

Inti Carro, an expert on the issue with the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) Small Grants Programme, also told IPS that another problem arising from human intervention is "the flooding of beaches, in areas like Ciudad de la Costa, because of poor management of rainwater.

"In the past, the water that drained out of the towns ran into surrounding wetlands," he said.

But around 10 years ago, the municipal government of the conservative Colorado Party, in office at the time, "paved what is today the coastal avenue, and the water was channeled directly towards the beach, cutting through the sand dunes and drying out the wetlands.

"The challenge here is to resolve the problem of rainwater, recuperate the wetlands and plug up the drainage channels that were created," said Carro.

Goso and Carro concurred that what is needed is a coastal management plan, and that Uruguay will require specialised human resources to that end and, especially, funds.

The head of the National Environment Office, Alicia Torres, told IPS that one of the priorities of the National Climate Change Response System – created early this year on the initiative of socialist President Tabaré Vázquez – is to assess the vulnerability of the country’s coastal areas.

Although the governing left-wing Broad Front coalition is prepared to tackle the issue, there is no clear understanding yet of the pressing need for rapid action, say local environmentalists.

Community organisations, meanwhile, came to the conclusion that concrete action was needed to recuperate coastal areas, raise awareness on the problems and help people gain a better grasp of the value of the country’s beaches.

The Comarca Costera, a network of concerned citizens, educational institutions and social organisations from the Ciudad de la Costa, was formed in 2005 to that end.

A project carried out by the network, which was financed by GEF’s Small Grants Programme, included small-scale reforestation efforts and the construction of barriers to block the buildup of sand in two different areas, with advice from academics and the participation of local young people.

"These actions were symbolic," said Carro, who helped coordinate the project. "It’s obvious that local residents can’t save the coastal areas. But the measures helped the communities raise their voices and be heard by the relevant authorities."

Genaro Ribero, another of the project’s coordinators, told IPS that "there are families who commute long distances to live near the sea, and the ecosystem here is very important to them.

"We should value our lovely sandy beaches, which aren’t common in the world, and understand that Uruguay’s shoreline is not an infinite resource," he said, issuing a call for local communities and the authorities to continue to join efforts to save the coastline and neighbourhoods like Jackeline’s.

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