One in ten Catalan beaches may have disappeared within 15 years

Only 20% of the coastline has enough space to be able to react to rising sea levels

4 min
Inundacions in Alcanar

BarcelonaHow long can the Catalan coastline ignore the already obvious consequences of rising sea levels? The regression of the coastline is palpable and accelerating: since 2017, some metropolitan beaches have registered retreat rates ranging from 7.5 metres per year in Montgat to about 10 metres per year in Badalona. And the situation is even more critical in places such as the mouth of the Ebro delta. Around 9% of the country's beaches may have been "totally eroded" in 2035. And this, for scientists, is the optimistic scenario. In addition, about half of them are doomed to width losses that will jeopardise the tourist and leisure activities they allow right now. It is a "critical" situation, according to the diagnosis made by the extensive report A coastline at the limit commissioned by the Consell Assessor per al Desenvolupament Sostenible (CADS), dependent on the Generalitat.

The coast feels the consequences of a dangerous cocktail mixed up in the last few decades in an area that represents 7% of Catalonia but in which 43% of its population lives. Urban pressure has transformed most of the coastline - houses, promenades, facilities, ports and roads have been built - and all this has changed the morphology of rivers and wadies, which has stopped the arrival of sediments they used to carry and which fed the beaches. Now, with he additional effects of the climate crisis, the sea is eating away at the seafront and storms (and floods) are becoming more recurrent. "We are witnessing a slow-motion tsunami," insists Carles Ibáñez, one of the coordinators of the study and researcher and scientific director of Eurecat climate resilience centre. The report also proposes a series of solutions, starting with the creation of the Conservatori del Llitoral, which must be used to deploy an adaptation strategy, which will be costly and focus on the long-term, because it will affect all 70 coastal municipalities. "We have the diagnosis and it is exhaustive, the time has come to act," urged Arnau Queral, tthe director of the CADS.

A commuter train passing through Sant Pol de Mar during a storm.

The retreat of the deltas

To begin with, the bill for the regression that the beaches are already suffering is growing and will become unsustainable: between 2002 and 2010 approximately 775,000 cubic metres of sand were artificially added each year to the Catalan coast, mainly on the beaches of the Barcelona area. The economic and environmental costs of these operations "are not viable," says Ibáñez. To guarantee sand on the beaches - 61% have lost their dunes - it is necessary to act further upstream, in the courses of rivers and the alterations to their morphology, which in recent years have stopped the arrival of sediments to the coast.

This phenomenon, particularly aggravated in areas such as the Ebro delta, is what has caused the coast at this point to retreat more than 10 metres per year at the mouth of the river. In the Llobregat delta the retreat is almost one kilometre, according to the work of Juan Pablo Martín-Vide, professor at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya

Today only 20% of the coastline has enough space to retreat and avoid the effects of rising sea levels. "How long will be able to afford only react to storms?" Ibáñez asks himself in statements to ARA, not even ten days after the images of flooding in the Montsià and only a year and a half after storm Gloria , which caused €75m in damages. The report urges administrations to prepare and "rethink urban planning" taking into account this threat. It also warns that it is unrealistic to think that everything that is currently built can be protected: 60% of the country's seafront (80% if we do not count the Cap de Creus and the Ebro delta, which are protected) has houses under 100 metres away from the sea.

Buying land, moving facilities

The heritage at risk, warns Ibáñez, is, first of all, the beaches, but we must also think of other buildings that will be affected by the rising sea and are in areas which are particularly vulnerable. The report points out the paradigmatic case of the R1 commuter train line in the Maresme region, which several reports say will need to be moved. "We are entering a period in which some infrastructures will become obsolete and we will have to think about where we want to build new ones taking into account this reality," he insists. We will have to prioritize the most critical areas and opt for the purchase of land and the relocation of equipment to create spaces for adaptation. This is precisely one of the priorities that the Conservatori del Litoral, which should have been created this summer, ought to take into account. "We cannot protect the entire coastline with breakwaters, which are very costly and inefficient from an environmental point of view. We need an adaptive urban planning as France or the United Kingdom are already doing", corroborates the professor of administrative law at the University of Girona, Josep Aguirre.

The diagnosis of scientists also forces us to rethink future urban plans, which propose the construction of 120,000 new homes. The Generalitat now wants to review this number because it admits that large parts of the coast "have exceeded their carrying capacity," explains the director of Mountain and Coastal Policy, Albert Alins. This month the procedures for a new urban plan that will affect the entire coastline between Malgrat de Mar and Alcanar ought to be launched, following in the footsteps of what was done in the Costa Brava, where 15,000 new homes were authorised out of the 31,000 potential homes provided for in the various municipal plans. The report calls on all administrations, including state and local councils, to review their plans and identify what is at risk - promenades, facilities, infrastructure - in order to act.

The cost of adapting kilometres and kilometres of vulnerable seafront will be very high, and the report makes proposals such as that part of the proceeds from the tourist tax is used to nourish the Conservatori del Llitoral (out of the 19m+ visitors who came to Catalonia in 2019, 90% stayed on the coast). It also proposes to tax all activities that make use of the coast or create new taxes on second homes in these areas.