Coastal erosion redraws St. Vincent’s north-east coast

The government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is planning to shore up over 305 metres (1,000 feet) of the shoreline in Sandy Bay, where the sea ils eroded almost 60 m (200 ft) of the shoreline. Photo by Kenton X. Chance, used with permission.

By Kenton X. Chance

This story was first published on Cari-Bois Environmental News Network. A version of the article is republished below as part of a content-sharing agreement.

On St. Vincent’s north-eastern coast, approximately 25 miles from the capital of Kingstown, sits the community of Sandy Bay. While the community’s picturesque ocean views have stood the test of time, 54-year-old resident Doxford Lavia remembers the coastline differently from what it is today. While giving Cari-Bois a tour of the area, he stopped at a seaside embankment and pointed at a huge boulder, positioned about 15 metres (50 feet) from where he was standing: “You see the whole of out there, where that stone is? That used to be coconut trees and land when I was a little boy.”

The area forms part of the backyard for a row of houses that the government recently identified for demolition, as the sea continues to erode more of the coast. “If you look from here straight ahead, we could have played football, cricket,” Lavia recalls as he points to an area where the sea is creating another bay in the community — but one does not have to have been living in Sandy Bay for over five decades, as Lavia has, to see that the sea is redrawing the coastline of the community.

Doxford Lavia, 54, a resident of Sandy Bay, looks at the coastal erosion in his community on January 30, 2023. Photo by Kenton X. Chance, used with permission.

Over the last decade, in particular, the waves, which become even more powerful when there are intense weather systems, have been battering the coastline that supports the day-to-day life of a large population of Garifuna, St. Vincent’s Indigenous people. [When the country was still colonised by the British, the Garifuna — historically known by the exonyms “Caribs,” — were sent to this part of the island to live under the shadow of the La Soufrière volcano, which erupted some years later and took many lives.]

The effects of climate change on St. Vincent

One of the most intense weather events to batter St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SGV) was the trough system that had a devastating impact as it passed over the island on December 24, 2013, claiming 12 lives. In less than four hours, the system left in its wake loss and damage amounting to about 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Over the past several years, the government of Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves has had to respond to the impact of climate change on the country, from hurricanes and droughts to floods and rising sea levels.

Comparing recent impacts with studies done along St. Vincent’s north-east coast as far back as 1947, researchers have observed substantial erosion, with some areas that were once a part of the coastline having since been reclaimed by the sea.

Approximately 15 miles south of Sandy Bay, there is another rapidly eroding span of coastline, this time at Shipping Bay. During his most recent budget presentation, the prime minister's son, Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves, said, “The erosion at Shipping Bay threatens to undermine the Windward Highway and effectively cut off vehicular access to half of the windward side of St. Vincent. We cannot allow that to happen.”

Urgent coastal defence works are needed at Shipping Bay to prevent the sea from cutting off the area from the rest of St. Vincent. Photo by Kenton X. Chance, used with permission.

The country’s parliament recently approved an Eastern Caribbean $1.3 billion budget (just under USD 500 million) for 2023 with approximately 6 percent of the budget being allocated to climate adaptation and environmental protection projects; EC $800,000 (approximately USD 296,000) was approved to create 64 metres of stone revetment to blunt the impact of crashing waves at Shipping Bay.

However, it will take an even larger sum of money to address the impact of climate change at Sandy Bay, an issue that the government has been trying to address for over a decade.

Tackling coastal erosion at Sandy Bay

The challenge at Sandy Bay has been exacerbated by recent tropical cyclones, which have had a particularly calamitous effect in St. Vincent’s northern territories, an area that was also badly affected by the 2021 eruption of La Soufrière volcano which, prior to this activity, hadn’t erupted since 1979.

The coastal protection of Sandy Bay is a so urgent that without it, according to the finance minister, “the village of Sandy Bay could cease to exist.” The government has secured US $13.5 million from the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) to finance coastal protection projects in Sandy Bay. It is, at least, a start.

The Sandy Bay Sea Defences Resilience Project aims to construct three segments of stone revetment measuring 730 metres (2,395 feet) in length to act as coastline protection. The work will include backfilling the area in front of the newly constructed revetments to act as a buffer zone between the existing infrastructure and the sea, including the construction of a 350-metre-long (1,148-feet) reinforced concrete retaining wall, measuring 2.5 to four meters (8.2 to 13 feet) in height and a further 250-metre-long (820 feet) masonry retaining wall that is three to five metres in height (9.8 to 16 feet). It also encompasses approximately 100 metres (328 feet) of paved walkways and 900 square metres (2,953 sq. ft) of landscaping.

In 2022, the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines spent EC $26 million (US 9.6 million) in coastal defences in Georgetown, a community on St. Vincent's north-east coast, and the regional capital. Photo by Kenton X. Chance, used with permission.

The works to be done in Sandy Bay will also redesign another section of St. Vincent’s east coast. In 2022, the government completed coastal defences in San Souci and Georgetown, funded under the World Bank's Regional Disaster Vulnerability Reduction Project (RDVRP), to the tune of EC $8.6 and $26 million, respectively (USD 3.1 and 9.6 million).

In Georgetown, the regional capital of north-eastern St. Vincent, a feasibility study showed that the area's shoreline had retreated by more than 60 metres (180 feet) in 40 years. The existing sea defence was designed to cater for a one-in-150-year possibility of a hurricane event, and a 10-inch (25.4 cm) rise in sea levels.

Sea level rise also affecting the Grenadines

Rising sea levels are also threatening communities in the Grenadines, where tourism is the economic mainstay. Opposition Leader Godwin Friday, who represents the northern Grenadines which comprises the islands of Bequia and Mustique, has repeatedly told parliament about the noticeable effects of rising seas there. He said in Paget Farm, southern Bequia, people have resorted to using makeshift defences to stave off rising seas, while Hamilton, a community located west of Bequia’s main town of Port Elizabeth, needs coastal protection infrastructure.

Noting the country’s location in the Atlantic hurricane belt, Friday noted that despite St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ “small carbon footprint, [it] will suffer disproportionately because [they] are small islands with vulnerable coastlines.”

Recognising the growing intensity and frequency of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic, Friday supports the country’s continued allocations to river and sea defence, and sees it as an investment in safeguarding lives and property.

Addressing coastal erosion in the Grenadines

Over two years ago, the government implemented an emergency barrier to protect the country’s world-famous Salt Whistle Bay on the southern Grenadines island of Mayreau. Camillo Gonsalves has said that the urgent need for intervention did not allow for all the necessary studies and designs to be completed beforehand, but he defended the action, explaining, “If we had waited for the engineers to finish engineering, and the designers to finish designing, we would have lost the bay as we know it forever.”

In the government’s 2023 fiscal package, money has been allocated for the completion of detailed engineering assessments and designs at Salt Whistle Bay, including an analysis of the existing temporary barrier in order to scientifically determine its effectiveness and lifespan.

A costly undertaking

Cecil Harris, programme manager of the CDB’s Natural Disaster Management Project in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, says that coastal defence works in any part of the world are an extremely expensive endeavour. In SVG, coastal rehabilitation can cost up to EC $20,000 (about USD 7,400) per linear foot of coastline, depending on the type of sea defence design.

Another section of the coastal defence works in Georgetown, on St. Vincent's north-east coast. Photo by Kenton X. Chance, used with permission.

Describing the 2022 United Nations Climate Change meeting (COP27) as a “mirage in the desert,” St. Vincent's finance minister is on record as saying climate change continues a disproportionate situation where small islands developing states are affected, and Global North countries aren’t living up to their financial responsibility in the crisis.

While a loss and damage fund was announced at the end of COP27, Gonsalves has sceptically said, “You have to read the fine print to learn that although rich nations agreed to create a loss and damage fund, no one agreed to put any actual money in the fund.”

He also pointed to the failed 2009 commitment by Global North countries to mobilise USD 100 billion a year to address climate mitigation and adaptation needs of Global South countries, saying, “None of those headline-grabbing global promises are anywhere close to fulfilment. At this rate, the diplomatic operation will be deemed successful long after the environmental patient is already dead.”

Despite the expensive nature of the efforts and the lack of funding from Global North countries, St. Vincent and the Grenadines is not in a position to sit and wait. With climate change affecting not only the country’s coastlines, but also its very existence, action is key, as are climate adaptation measures.

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