|The Coast Guard Auxiliary in Boracay and scientists from UNESCO's National Committee of Marine Science conduct deep-sea dives to determine the state of coral reefs in Boracay Island, Aklan (January 2009). Courtesy of Vanessa Garon, Coast Guard Auxiliary
Imagining Boracay island in Aklan without its pristine white sands is like imagining an oasis without water.
And yet, the country's premier tourist destination is under threat of losing its sands to erosion, or worse, being submerged underwater, should residents and local officials fail to address widespread environmental degradation in the area, a marine scientist with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said.
"[The island] is dying a slow death at the moment. That is erosion, it is like the sea is eating up [the beach]. If it continues unabated, maybe [the island] will be submerged, or the white sand is gone or reduced... the signs are there. Even for now, even if it's isolated but obvious, give it time where nothing substantial will be done, they will lose their sand," said Dr. Miguel Fortes, head of the UNESCO's National Committee on Marine Science (NCMS).
The erosion is happening particularly at Diniwid, a 200-meter long stretch of beach in the Southern part of the island, known for its powdery white sand. Fortes said he was astonished when he saw the drastic change in the sands within two years since his last visit in 2007.
Fortes had been commissioned by the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) in Boracay to conduct a study on the erosions, after local officals were alarmed by the phenomenon.
In a letter dated February 25, PCCI-Boracay Vice President Peter Brugger had sought the help of concerned government agencies like the Department of Tourism and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in addressing the issue.
Brugger said that many establishments in the northern part of Diniwid beach violated building laws and ordinances such as having no building or business permits, building permanent structures on marine reserve or no build zones and the set back from the tide mark.
"These violations aggravate the erosion, which changes the once attractive Diniwid beach," Brugger said in the letter.
Fortes explained that the erosion is occurring too rapidly, not because of overcrowding, but mainly because resorts and locals have built "environmentally unfriendly" structures like sea walls, which have blocked the natural flow of the current that naturally replenishes the beach.
"Sand should only move in and out of the shore, in and out, and it does not move to other islands. They have modified [natural processes] by constructing something, water and air is hindered, changing wave patterns on the coast so that erosion becomes more dominant," he said.
Wind patterns determine tide patterns, which in turn, are affected by the topography of coast causing both accretion (the build-up of sand making the shoreline farther away) or erosion (the loss of sand which makes the shoreline closer and closer inland). Normally, there should be a balance between accretion and erosion processes, which would sustain the beach's natural slope.
Sea walls and other structures that block the currents, Fortes said, are in danger of crumbling because waves have a stronger and harsher backlash when they slam against a wall.
Sand erosions are happening too quickly in Diniwid also because of extensive damage to the area's coral reefs hastened by the twin forces of climate change and human disturbance, such as using the corals for boat anchoring which destroys the ecosystem.
"We had to go dive up to 60 feet of water, my God, I could show you the condition of their reef, it's really pathetic. Boracay now has 5 to 15% hard coral cover, a silted coral reef, in the southeast part of the island it's even worse. That's not a healthy reef, so where would the divers go? They go to other places. Boracay should be protecting tourist destinations which are diving, boating, glass bottom boats," Fortes said after conducting initial investigations with a team of scientists in February. (see video)
He explained that coral reefs and seagrass act as buffers against wave impacts, but they have become less effective because of destruction, as well as sea level rise caused by climate change. He added that powdery white sand comes from coral reef organisms called "foraminiferans" but they can no longer replenish the coast because they have also been destroyed.
Fortes also noted that sewage waste from island resorts and local houses have been seeping under the sand, and may cause further erosion if it is acidic. "When we (NCMS) went to Boracay, I was surprised because when I dug my arm into the sand, at about two feet under it, I felt liquid. When I looked at it, it was black and it was smelly. How can tourists stand that if some areas have stinky sand?" he said.
'Other tourist areas at risk'
Sand erosions were also observed in other parts of the country like a section of white beach in Puerto Galera in Oriental Mindoro, Ragay Gulf in Luzon, and Sorsogon in the Bicol, all of which are mostly tourist areas.
Tourism Department Sec.retary Ace Durano, meanwhile, insisted that erosions, like that in Boracay, are no cause for alarm. "If you ask the people that have been in Boracay for decades, they will say that the sand is really like that. The sand really moves eh. So we have to find out if is this because of developments around the area or is it just because of the natural movement of the sand. Because if it is just a natural movement of the sand, it's best to let it be."
Durano added that he had commissioned Former DENR Sec. Elisea Gozun to study the phenomenon and determine whether the sand erosions are caused by human intervention, adding that engineering solutions should be implemented only after it is proven.
In response to the situation, some resort owners and local workers have taken to constructing sand bag walls, similar to those used against floods, to mitigate erosion. However, Fortes said this proves unsightly for tourists.
Boracay has also constructed bio-reefs to encourage more fish to come back to the area. Fortes said these are just quick fix solutions and recommended that Boracay's annual income should be used instead for long-term solutions like preserving the marine ecosystem in the area.
Boracay town reportedly receives about P30 million a year, mostly from tourism, and they even charge every visitor an environmental fee of P50.
In an NCMS workshop, attended by local government officials and the Boracay Foundation Inc., a local organization composed of leading establishments on the island, the committee outlined several options for the community in addressing the problem like mangrove reforestation, seagrass transplantation, and coral reef enhancement.
Hard engineering solutions include building "jackstone type" artificial reefs that would allow coral reefs to regenerate. Some coral varieties can grow fast within five years but others take longer.
"If you're talking about [the] reef system, give it at least 10 or 15 years if destructive practices don't continue. That ecosystem was there for so many years but it can be destroyed in just a minute, an hour. But it takes at least double the time for it to recover," Fortes said.
He was hopeful, however, that the problem could be solved if local government agencies, Boracay residents, and business establishment owners work together.
The NCMS is composed of 13 Philippine government agencies which annually conduct seminars or workshops to address environmental issues. This year, the committee decided to tackle climate change, holding a lecture in Boracay in January on how the island can cope with the effects of global warming.