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WOR 5 Coasts – A Vital Habitat Under Pressure | 2017

Improving coastal protection

Improving coastal protection
> If the coast is to be conserved as habitat, it has to be protected. This not only entails prudent management of coastal areas, taking all stakeholder groups into consideration, but also main­taining a catalogue of effective coastal protection measures that can be adapted as sea level rises. Worldwide there are examples which give cause for hope. One challenge that remains is that of creating homelands in new places for the coastal dwellers that lose their homes because of climate change.
The art of coastal management © Fernando Moleres/laif

The art of coastal management

> Divergent interests give rise to conflicts time and time again in the course of comprehensive coastal protection. However, if all stakeholder groups can agree on a sustainable management plan, this often generates considerable benefits for all.

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Coping with rising sea levels © mauritius images/Frans Lemmens/Alamy

Coping with rising sea levels

> Dikes, walls and barriers protect coasts from flooding. Yet sea-level rise calls for novel solutions that take account of ongoing natural impacts and can gradually adjust to the rising water. Even with these, some coasts will become uninhabitable in the future. For those who are affected new homes need to be located now, for they will become climate refugees.

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Together for conscientious use and better protection

Sustainable use of the coasts can only be achieved if the various interests of diverse users are brought into accord. To begin with, internationally, responsibility is explicitly regulated through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This establishes the concept of territorial waters, which are considered the sovereign territory of a country. Extending beyond this is the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), within which the state has the exclusive right to exploit natural resources such as oil and fish, although it is not part of the sovereign territory of the state. How a nation uses its coastal areas, however, is its own decision.
In order to avoid conflicts of interest, Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) aims to achieve sustainable development of coastal zones. ICZM has succeeded in some cases in preventing conflict between nature conservation and tourism, and in realizing sustainable coastal fisheries.
Where important coastal areas extend across national boundaries, additional international coordination is necessary. For this purpose the concept of Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs) was developed, which has already led to a number of positive ­achievements. For example, states bordering on the LME in the Bay of Bengal were able to agree measures to control over­fishing and pollution of the sea.
Successful coastal zone management in the future will have to include effective protection from rising sea level. While the previous strategy was to protect the coasts in part with strong and rigid structures like dikes or barriers, there is now a move away from this paradigm. This is especially because the consequences of future climate change cannot be predicted accurately. Coastal protection measures must therefore be planned more flexibly. Adaptive coastal protection is a promising alternative that provides for a number of different measures that build upon one another, and that are adapted to the advance of sea level in planning and design. These can include ­raising the elevation of dikes with the help of protective walls or creating new flood-plain areas called ­polders, into which flood waters can be diverted. One of the first large adaptive projects to be initiated is for the protection of the Thames estuary near London. Adaptive coastal protection also entails building settlements in such a way that they are not suscep­tible to damage by high waters – perhaps by the construction of floating houses.
While coastal protection in the past has often meant creating large structures cutting across coastal areas, coastal engineers are now calling increasingly for a philosophy of “Building with Nature”. This in­volves using the natural potential of the coasts, for example by promoting the colonization of oyster reefs or eelgrass beds, or by constructing polders where high-diversity salt marshes can develop. Despite the many encouraging examples of alternatives, however, coastal protection programmes around the world remain quite conservative because generally accepted standards or regulations for eco­system-based measures are still absent and their effectiveness in many cases has yet to be demonstrated. This lack of knowledge needs to be remedied quickly.
In spite of all measures, it will not be possible to preserve all of the world’s coasts in the face of rising sea level. The governments of island nations are thus already preparing for an orderly retreat, for instance through education programmes that make their ­populations attractive for employment abroad. It is hoped that this may put the people who could soon be ­climate refugees in a position to build new livelihoods in other countries.