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Heavy machinery at work on the beach at Barcelona, Spain.
Shifting sands … heavy machinery at work ‘enhancing’ the beach at Barcelona, Spain. Photograph: agefotostock/Alamy
Shifting sands … heavy machinery at work ‘enhancing’ the beach at Barcelona, Spain. Photograph: agefotostock/Alamy

Barcelona’s beaches could vanish as authorities abandon ‘enhancement’

Along Spain’s east coast, storms and rising sea levels are eating away at the coastline – but the old solutions are now out of fashion

For the 1992 Olympic Games, Barcelona rediscovered the sea. It beefed up its beachfront using thousands of tons of sand, and the area is now packed with tourists and lined with beach bars. Barcelona’s beach may be partly artificial, but it’s big business.

The way things are going, however, soon there won’t be any beach at all. Across Catalonia, rising sea levels and winter storms are eating away at the coastline. Up to now, what is washed away in winter has been replenished in spring with sand dredged from within the breakwaters or from estuaries and ports. However, the practice of “enhancing” beaches in this way is now widely seen as futile and environmentally damaging. Without it, little by little, the city’s beaches could revert to the gravelly strips they were only 30 years ago.

Port Vell harbour, Barcelona, with one of the city’s beaches in the distance.
Port Vell harbour, Barcelona, with one of the city’s beaches in the distance. Photograph: Eloi_Omella/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The culprit is erosion. Of the 700,000 cubic metres of sand sent by the Spanish government to the coast of Barcelona province in 2010, 70% has since disappeared. Barcelona’s nine city beaches have been losing about 30,000 cubic metres of sand a year, according to the municipal water authority’s Patricia Giménez, who is responsible for beaches in the greater Barcelona area.

The erosion is accelerating as a result of the climate crisis. Bogatell beach, at the north end of the city, has shrunk from 36,000 cubic metres in 2010 to 15,000 cubic metres today. Overall, Catalonia’s beaches have lost 25% of their sand since 2015.

Giménez says photographic evidence suggests there were no beaches at all until the first breakwater was installed near the port in the mid-18th century, creating the beaches of Barceloneta and Sant Sebastià. Then came the 1992 Games, with the new “enhanced” beach helping transform Barcelona into a tourist capital.

Barceloneta and Sant Sebastiá beaches, Barcelona, in summer.
Barceloneta and Sant Sebastiá beaches were created in the 18th century. Photograph: guss.95/Shutterstock

The city has now established a group of experts to study the future of the beaches. Giménez says: “It’s important to bear in mind that beaches not only serve to protect the coast, but have a social value for the people of Barcelona, who use them to swim, for sport, meditation or what have you.

“The group concluded that, until we find an optimum solution, we need more sand to give us time to develop other solutions.”

The city is still waiting for the Spanish government to agree to pay for a further tranche of sand. But with the tourist season already in full swing, it’s unlikely that there will be any change before the autumn.

The Catalan government opposes dumping any more sand, which it describes as a waste of money. Mireia Boya, the regional government’s head of climate action, instead proposes measures that work with nature, such as dune recovery.

“The natural dynamic will lead to the loss of sand in many places,” says Boya. “Sea levels will rise and we will have narrower beaches. Some smaller beaches will acquire more sand and others will disappear.”

When Storm Gloria hit Spain’s east coast in January 2020, 157,100 cubic metres of sand was lost, of which less than half has been recovered. Since then, central government has spent €5.3m (£4.7m) shoring up Catalonia’s coastal defences, but the money was largely spent on breakwaters and sea walls, not sand.

Digger and bulldozer replenishing the disappearing sand on Barcelona’s beaches.
Replenishing the disappearing sand on Barcelona’s beaches. Photograph: agefotostock/Alamy

“This situation has come about because the beaches are largely artificial, through the urbanisation of the Catalan coastline, which is the most developed in Spain, rising sea levels and the destruction of sand dunes,” says Marta Martín-Borregón, a Greenpeace spokesperson on oceans.

“In addition, ports and breakwaters affect the currents, which no longer bring sediments to the beaches, which is what they would do naturally.”

A report by the Barcelona metropolitan area authority (AMB) says that the expansion of the marina at El Masnou on the Maresme has blocked the flow of between 50,000 and 100,000 cubic metres of sediment a year, contributing to the erosion of the beach at Montgat, eight miles north of Barcelona, which has shrunk by about 80%.

Meanwhile, about 60 miles south in Altafulla, in the province of Tarragona, they have tried without success to create sand dunes as a means of conservation.

Aerial view of Tamarit Castle next to Altafulla beach, Tarragona, Spain.
Altafulla beach, Tarragona province, where efforts to create sand dunes didn’t work. Photograph: Sergi Reboredo/Alamy

“To create dunes you need more sand and there is only one part of the beach where we can do it and it hasn’t worked out,” said Marisa Méndez-Vigo, Altafulla’s deputy mayor.

In the absence of government support, the council has set aside €50,000 to buy sand, but Méndez-Vigo says that, at €8 to €10 a cubic metre, this is little more than a stopgap.

The AMB estimates that the beaches of greater Barcelona generate a tourist income of about €60m. The city has many other charms but for small coastal towns such as Altafulla, the beach is their main attraction and without it they will go into rapid decline.

“Altafulla survives on tourism and second homes owned by people who want to be near the beach,” says Méndez-Vigo. “Without a beach, the economy will be hard hit and a lot of jobs will disappear.

“We’re all aware that replenishing the beaches with sand isn’t a long-term solution, not even for tourism. We need to find ways to retain the natural increase in sand that we see in January so that it doesn’t disappear in the first storm. But until we have these lasting and environmentally sound solutions, we will need more sand.”

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