Is Boracay vanishing?

Posted at 05/25/2011 1:24 AM | Updated as of 05/25/2011 1:42 AM

Malay, Aklan, Philippines -- Next to crimson sunsets kissing the tranquil indigo waters and the iconic Willy’s Rock, giant sandcastles are considered "most photographed" in Boracay Island. The dates etched on them are like “proof of life”—helpful in pictures that brag to friends  one’s conquest of the country’s most important beach.

Building giant sandcastles, now prohibited in Boracay

But these colossal palaces conscientiously built daily by locals in exchange for donations from tourists have been outlawed. 

"It took a while for locals and tourists to understand the rationale behind the municipal ordinance prohibiting giant sandcastles,” said Elena Brugger, a real estate professional and environmentalist based in the island.

Locals earn a few hundreds of pesos a day for their sandcastles but they disembowel the bosom of the white beach daily for tons of fresh sand needed to build them. This alters the shoreline’s surface and diminishes the sand’s color and powder-like quality, so government prohibited the practice.

But more than the damage caused by sandcastles, a much sinister threat confronts Boracay’s White Beach—one that has an insatiable appetite for land—and in this case—sand.

Climate change
In the last five years, a dramatic rise in water levels was noted in Boracay. Coasts are also  thinning. Sand erosion is most pronounced in Diniwid Beach north of the island, as waters are where sand used to be.

A photo of Diniwid Beach taken in 2007 (Photo by Elena Brugger)

Sand erosion in Diniwid is so drastic that the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and a team of scientists from the University of the Philippines conducted erosion research in the area, in the context of climate change, reckless development and a convolution of other anti-environment practices.

Diniwid Beach, photo taken in 2009 with obvious signs of sand erosion

UNESCO, in its climate change publications,  suggested that every centimeter rise in water level results in a one-meter beach erosion. From climate change alone, Boracay is already fated to shed off  portions of its reputed 4-kilometer White Beach.

And sand is all that matters.

“People come here not really because of parties, diving, swimming or water sports. Many other islands offer them already. It’s the sand that makes Boracay unique,” Brugger said. “And sand erosion will ultimately affect everyone [on the island] whether big or small business.”

Marine experts agree.

“The climate is changing and Boracay has to adapt to its impact if it wants to survive and sustain tourism,” said Mike Fortes of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UPMSI) during his presentation before multi-sectoral groups in the island.

According to Fortes, the wanton disregard for the threats posed by climate change, the feeble will of government to enforce laws, and the dearth in disaster-coping mechanisms by the community --all from indifference -- can steer the country’s premiere island to its auspicious doom in the time of global warming.

Crimes against sand
Boracay’s proposed Comprehensive Land Use Plan pushed by former Tourism Secretary Ace Durano has not been approved by local government when it should have prepared the  island for the monumental growth it is experiencing today.

As a result, structures that violate building guidelines flourish along the beach. 

For instance, many resorts disregard the 30-meter easement required between buildings and  the shoreline, which should have abated sand erosion and water intrusion.

Building structures “taller than the tallest tree” are also prohibited yet the mid-rise hotels along Boracay’s beachfront blatantly violate this guideline. 

Massive clearing of coconut and other coast-growing trees have paved the way for construction. 

“Palm trees dampen the wind unlike hard structures such as buildings,” Brugger said. “[Hard surfaces] deflect wind,” she added. Wind transports sand and sediment back to shore.

A resort builds a stone seawall at Diniwid Beach (photo by Elena Brugger)

Resorts whose seawalls built too close to the shore also contribute to sand erosion.

Cesar Villanoy of the UPMSI warns seawalls disrupt sand transport. Tides and changes in wave movement between seasons (amihan and habagat) aid in sand transport.

“During habagat season, sand is carried by waters away from the White Beach and is brought back during amihan season, when wind and water move in the opposite direction,” Villanoy said.  This is the natural flow of sediments. Sand removed during one season will be brought back in the next. 

In the northern portion of Station 1, for instance, erosion is already severe. Large quantities of sand have been worn away, exposing sewage pipes. 

Sand erosion in extreme station 1, where sewerage pipes are exposed

Exposed to the elements, pipes can easily break and leak waste water into the sea. This could  bring about the recurrence of e-coli bacteria contamination, which in 1997 scared tourists away from Boracay’s waters.

Exposed and damaged sewerage and water pipes in station 1

Water intrusion is also evident as during typhoons, destructive flooding is experienced in resorts, bars, shops and residences along White Beach as well as houses within Boracay’s cramped inroads.

One used to walk on dry sand from station 1 to the Diniwid grotto

The hidden costs of booming tourism
The talcum fine sand earned for Boracay the moniker “best beach in the world,” attracting swarms of visitors whose activities have become bane for the sands.

Boracay's immaculately white sands in a photo taken in 1986 (Photo by UPMSI)

The boats that bring tourists had killed corals and reduced coral cover in White Beach to a measly 5 to 25 percent, according to studies by UNESCO, largely due to anchor damage. Tourists that dive, swim or snorkel in reefs also threaten these fragile ecosystems.

Halimeda Optunia, seaweed that helps in white sand development

According to research presented by Villanoy, reefs and sea grass provide the first line of defense against sand erosion. Without them,  sand is easily transported by the back-flow of water.

Seaweeds are also responsible for the propagation of Boracay’s precious white sand. Research by marine scientist Edna Fortes  suggests seaweeds help in the formation of coral reefs that are essential in sand and sediment development.

“If we protect our coral reefs which include the sources of sediments for beaches, then, we also protect our beaches and the ecosystem as a whole,” Fortes said.

Not business as usual in Boracay
Marine scientist Mike Fortes told Boracay  stakeholders that collective effort is needed from  government, business and the community to cope with climate change and everyone must act now.

“Everyday we wait to take action, the problem becomes dramatically more difficult and costly to address successfully,” Fortes said.

He also recommended the approval and implementation of the comprehensive land use plan. 
Ecological preservation must be part of the culture of everyone in the island. Communities and businesses whose livelihood depends on tourism must also contribute.

But a chunk of the task rests on the government, which for a long time played a bystander’s role in the resort island.

“If we regard the threat as a ‘business as usual’ scenario; if we don’t leave ‘comfort zones’ and make sacrifices for the greater good; if we lose hope, then we will not be able to cope with climate change,” said Fortes. 

The Malay local government, for its part, said it is taking affirmative action, given the gargantuan task of trouble-shooting ahead.

“We will impose a moratorium on new construction and strictly enforce ordinances to clean White Beach,“ said Malay Mayor John Yap. “We are taking every careful step in following the intent and the spirit of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan.”

It is regrettable that for failing to see the calamitous cost of irresponsible development in the island, Boracay may lose more than just its sandcastles.