Some property owners along Ecuador’s coast say they are watching beaches disappear before their eyes. Many of them are asking the government for help but are receiving little sympathy.
“When I bought my place five years ago, there was at least 50 meters of beach in front of my house, even at low tide,” says Roger Masterson, a Canadian expat. “Last month, I had to install rocks and sandbags to keep the water out. I’m afraid I might not have any house at all after El Niño.”
Masterson and his neighbors, in northern Santa Elena Province, blame the beach erosion on new developments that surround their houses. “They have diverted the natural tidal flow of sand along the shoreline and it’s robbed us of our fair share. No one bothered to do an impact survey before construction was allowed.”
Local governments agree that some projects should not have been approved and blame former staff for signing off, but say others were built illegally. In any case, officials say there is little they can do a this point other to fine wrong-doers.
Homeowners in Santa Elena and Manabi provinces have been meeting with local authorities for months, asking for government help in advance of the El Niño weather system that is expected to affect the area beginning in October. “We are scared to death of El Niño and worry that we could lose everything,” says Juan Miranda, one of Masterson’s neighbors. “We are not responsible for the erosion and think the government should help us.”
Gustavo Mora, of the University of San Francisco-Quito earth sciences faculty, says both owners and the government have plenty at stake. “Because of the recent construction near the shoreline, the El Niño could be very, very bad,” he said. “Add to that the lack of environmental studies and poor planning for construction and it could be catastrophic.” Mora said he believes even a moderat
e El Niño could destroy hundreds, if not thousands, of structures.
There is no estimate of how many foreign property owners are endangered by beach erosion, but Mora says it could be in the thousands. “You have many North Americans owners, as well as Colombians and Venezuelans, and many of these people did not understand the erosion danger when they bought. They were depending on developers and private sellers.”
In at least one community, a North American is being blamed for the problem. The mayor of El Mantal in Manabi Province, says he would never have approved the Coco Beach project, developed by U.S. citizen Gary Swenson. “Some of the houses were built too close to the water and could be lost,” says Angel Rojas. “They never did an environmental study and now the individual owners will pay the price.” He says eight of 13 houses in the project will be at severe risk during the El Niño.
According to the Guayaquil newspaper El Universo, one property owner at Coco Beach, says she paid $450,000 for her oceanfront house and lot, and has recently had to contribute more money to build a 200 meter seawall to protect it from erosion. She and other owners are pursing legal action against Swenson and others.
“When I bought here, there was a beautiful beach,” said another Coco Beach homeowner who asked not to be named. “Now, all there is is a seawall, mud and rocks.” She adds: “This natural process was already going on when the owner sold the lots and he was aware of it.”
According to Rojas, Swenson left Ecuador three years ago.
In San Vicente, an hour’s drive south of El Mantal, residents are also witnessing extreme erosion. Several North Americans are suing builders, claiming that the erosion problems were well-known but not revealed to property buyers.
A 2010 report to the World Conference on Climate Change in Cancun, Mexico, showed that while Ecuador’s beaches are eroding at an average rate of two meters per decade, some of the country’s most popular beaches are eroding at a faster rate. Among these are Atacames, Jama, Puerto Lopez, and Montañita. Montañita has lost more than 200 structures and seen more than 50 meters of beach disappear since the mid-1980s and are under constant threat of over-washes on roads and streets that front the water.
The major factor contributing to the erosion, says Mora, is the tectnonic subduction of the Nazca Plate beneath the South American Plate, just off the Pacific Ocean shore of South America. The subduction not only means that the coast experiences the country’s strongest earthquakes but that there is constant movement of the sea floor which, in turn, affects the shoreline. “This is the reason we should not be building on most of the beaches,” Mora said.