According to scientists and local government officials, one of the most severe impacts of the El Niño that could begin affecting Ecuador within weeks is beach erosion. “This could be very, very bad, it could be catastrophic,” said Gustavo Mora of the University of San Francisco earth sciences faculty.
“In the preparation for El Niño, we are not talking much about it because we don’t want to scare property owners, but we should,” he said. “There are large numbers of structures, houses, condominiums and hotels, that could be destroyed and it is not something people want to face.”
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, Montañita and Salinas. The Montañita and Salinas areas have 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.
Mora blames real estate developers and lax government regulation for much of the problem. “Many structures are built right on the beach, forward of historic high tide marks,” he said. “From the north to the south on the coast, you see hundreds of homes with rock barricades around them to keep the water out. In a big El Niño, these homes will be lost.”
“There should be some responsibility on the part of developers for the properties that are at risk but this will not happen unless the government intervenes,” Mora says. “There are many naïve buyers who do not understand the danger they face and they deserve some protection.”
Mora says he is hearing calls by property owners, and even entire communities, to replenish beaches with dredged sand, but, he says this is not practical in Ecuador. “This is done in the U.S. in places like Florida and Virginia, but won’t work here,” he says. “It is very expensive in the first place and in the second place, off-shore water depths drop off too quickly for it to be effective.”
“I think we may see thousands of structures destroyed if the El Niño is as strong as predicted,” Mora said. “People should be prepared.”