Time and tide threaten Jamaica’s top beach

Negril's celebrated Seven Mile Beach has attracted tourists from all over the world since being 'discovered' in the 1960s
Negril's celebrated Seven Mile Beach has attracted tourists from all over the world since being 'discovered' in the 1960s
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TOURISTS from around the world are drawn to a stretch of palm-fringed shoreline known as “Seven Mile Beach,” a crescent of white sand along the ­turquoise waters of Jamaica’s western coast. But the sands are slipping away and Jamaicans fear the beach, someday, will need a new nickname.

Each morning, groundkeepers with metal rakes carefully tend Negril’s resort-lined shore. Some sections, however, are barely wide enough for a decent-sized beach towel and the Jamaican National Environment and Planning Agency says sand is receding at a rate of more than a metre a year.

“The beach could be totally lost within 30 years,” said Anthony McKenzie, a senior director at the agency.

Shrinking coastline long has raised worry for the area’s environmental and economic future. Now, the erosion is expected.

“If the water takes over this beach, well, that’s the end of the tourists,” Lyn Dennison said as she tended to her beachside stand selling jewellery and wooden statues of roosters, horses and other animals.

For much of its history, Negril was an isolated fishing outpost. In the late 1960s, it began to draw American hippies lured by the scenery and cheap marijuana. As its fame grew resorts such as Sandals and the Grand Lido were built and the number of annual visitors grew from about 40,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 in 2012.

Fearful of losing their main draw, some alarmed hoteliers are pressing the government to refill the beach with dredged sand, a pricey step many experts say is a temporary fix at best.

Jamaica is readying plans to build submerged breakwaters it hopes will absorb wave energy and slow loss of shoreline, using an initial £3.38 million in grants from a United Nations climate-change convention.

The breakwater project in Negril, which one study says could cost as much as £48.24m over the course of 80 years, offers a glimpse of what may lie ahead for other coastal towns on Caribbean islands.

Beaches across the region are being transformed by a variety of factors: shoreline development; surges from increasingly intense storms; coastal pollution that affects marine life; and coral reefs crumbling in warmer waters. The changes are particularly worrisome for the Caribbean because of its dependence on sea-and-sand tourism.

The region is facing an existential threat, said Ulrich Trotz, science adviser for the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre.

“We don’t have much time. Action now is imperative if the Caribbean is to survive as we know it,” Mr Trotz said. According to the World Bank, some areas of the island of St Vincent have lost up to 30 metres of beach over the past nine years.

Building seawalls to protect from an encroaching sea, an approach that has seen limited success in places like California, has been one response on the island of Barbados. But in many cases, scientists say allowing shores to retreat or bolstering beaches with vegetation and restoring wetlands could be smarter. “For many beaches, adaptation measures such as bringing in sand and creating seawalls will only slow the inevitable, and at a significant and continual financial cost,” said Jason Spensley of the UN Climate Technology Centre and Network.

Environmental experts and civil planners say leaders across the region need to adapt for the long term. City developers could adjust how they zone, improve enforcement of marine regulations and better plan water systems, for example. Beachfront developers could be encouraged to protect dunes and anchoring vegetation such as seagrasses, better manage coastal runoff pollution and push construction farther back from the sea.

“We just don’t seem to be prepared to do any of it. It’s as if we do not see what Negril has become, what the dangers to its future are,” said Diana McCaulay, CEO of the non-profit Jamaica Environment Trust.

Simon Mitchell, a geologist at the island’s University of the West Indies, says governments need to think further ahead.

In low-lying Negril, for example, there is “no doubt” that hotels perched along the beach will be deluged in coming decades, he said.

“We need to be looking 50 years into the future,” he said.

“We cannot keep going into places with pristine beaches, immediately put in hotels and then end up with the same problem in ten years’ time because those beaches are eroding in exactly the same way.”