THE seaside residents in Putatan, Tanjung Tunku in Lahad Datu and even in the far-flung district of Pitas, are not struggling with poverty alone but also coastal erosion.
Their beaches used to be a great place to have fun, relax and enjoy the scenery.
While the sunset may still be beautiful, one can’t say much about the coastline as it is slowly being swallowed up by the sea. Coastal erosion is a universal issue affecting almost every coastal state and country.
In Kampung Marasinsim in Pitas, village folks used to fish from the shore and picked sea creatures as they waded along the beach during low tide.
“There is not much to fish nowadays. And shells which used to dot the shoreline are hard to find now,” laments a resident, Suadi Adar, who like many families there have been calling the village their play-and-fish ground.
These three coasts have been identified as among more than 30 beaches in Malaysia experiencing critical erosion. The folks in these three coastal areas can sit back and enjoy the view unlike their peninsula counterparts, who are facing a more critical situation.
Malaysia lost 15% of its beaches
According to the National Coastal Erosion Study 2015, Malaysia has lost more than 15% of its beaches, with the sea reclaiming some 1,380km of shoreline over the last few decades.
The study further revealed that many of these beaches could be lost in the next 10 years or so.
The study says critical erosion happens when the coastline retreats at a rate of more than 4m a year with generally fairly dense human settlement as well as some commercial or industrial activities.
“Erosion along the coastline is widespread. Consequently, coastal erosion is a national, rather than local, problem in Malaysia.
“There are many important economic and social activities taking place along the coastal areas so the consequences of coastal erosion have become an increasingly serious concern,” it said.
Malaysia has a total of 8,840km of shoreline, with the peninsula alone stretching for 3,772km while Sabah’s coastline stretches over 3,753km, followed by Sarawak (1,234km) and Labuan (81km).
The study showed that Terengganu has eight areas with critical erosion, while Penang and Sarawak both have seven coastal zones at critical levels.
This is followed by Negri Sembilan (6), Kedah (4), Sabah (3), Kelantan (2), Pahang (2), Perak (1) and Labuan (1).
Of this, Kampung Pak Tuyu in Kuala Terengganu sees the highest length of coastline erosion at almost 16.5km. The beach is eroding at 11.8m a year!
The coastline that records the highest rate of erosion is Kampung Batu Laut, in Kuala Langat, Selangor, which reports an erosion rate of 24.2m per annum.
The report noted that almost all of the peninsula’s 3,772km of coastline comprises easily eroded alluvium.
“The basis of the study is identifying critical erosion areas with an aggregate length of 140km with facilities that were in immediate danger.
“Significant erosion areas with an aggregate length of 240km consisted of facilities that would be endangered within five to 10 years,” it said.
“Acceptable erosion areas with an aggregate length of more than 900km are generally undeveloped and presently contain no facilities that will be endangered within the foreseeable feature,” it added.
With the world worries about sea levels rising and swallowing up land, like any other natural areas, beaches are subject to change. A problem that has plagued most coastal regions is the fast rate of erosion.
Addressing Erosion and Disappearing Beaches
Realising the increasing incidences of coastal erosion which threatens coastal population and leads to loss of properties along the coastlines, the Malaysian government has carried out the National Coastal Erosion Study from November 1984 to January 1986.
The study results indicate that out of the country’s coastline of 4,809 km, about 29% or 1,380 km was facing erosion. Realising the rising problem, the Government set up the Coastal Engineering Centre in the Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID) in 1987 to implement coastal erosion control program throughout the country.
Malaysian coastline varies from scenic bays flanked by rocky headlands to shallow mud flats lined with mangrove forests. On the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, the high sediment yield from river discharges and harsher wave environment creates the setting for a coastline of hook-shaped sandy bays.
Whilst on the west coast, the mild wave climate of the Straits of Malacca makes for wide mud shores and coastal forests rich in biodiversity. Similar forms characterised the beaches of Sarawak and Sabah although certain sandy areas are very flat. Shore materials include a mix of sand, silts, and even shells with some patches of gravels and the occasional rock outcrops.
A two-prong strategy was adopted with the short-term strategy involves construction of erosion control projects and the long-term strategy that improves coastal zone management in an integrated manner so that incidences of coastal erosion will not increase, the DID reported.
Coastal erosion sadly, has been hastened by climate change, prompting stronger and more frequent storms that cause more sand to retreat into the ocean. According to a 2020 study, half of the beaches worldwide will disappear by the end of the century.
Soft and hard solutions
There are a couple of solutions to help keep our beaches from being swallowed up by the ocean. Soft solutions don’t require creating synthetic structures in the beach’s ecosystem. They are widely considered more environmentally friendly than hard solutions, but they also tend to be less effective at preventing coastal erosion long-term. Some of the most popular soft solutions include vegetation, nourishment, sandbags methods.
One of the most environmentally safe ways of staving off coastal erosion is adding vegetation to the beach. The combination of plant life and the wildlife that inhabit these areas, anchor the sand in place.
The costly hard solutions require the use of synthetic structures that are effective for longer periods than soft solutions but at the risk of harming the beach’s ecosystem. The methods most often used include seawalls, breakwaters, and groynes.
Seawalls can offer some of the most long-term solutions to coastal erosion, but at the expense of having a beach at all. The sand in front of a seawall will eventually erode while the land behind it will stay put. Installing a seawall also puts other beaches at risk of facing faster erosion rates since the seawall deflects the waves instead of absorbing them.
While breakwaters are structures built to run parallel to beaches to break up waves crashing on the shore. They can help slow down the effects of erosion at their adjacent locations but they may also cause increased corrosion on other parts of the beach.
Groynes operate similarly to breakwaters, except they run perpendicular to a beach instead of parallel. When installed, they will starve parts of a beach immediately downdrift from it, trapping and adding sand from surrounding beaches.
It’s important to note that each of these solutions to coastal erosion is not permanently effective, but only “buys time”. At some point, the combination of natural and climate change-induced decline will force the land to slip away into the ocean unless solutions are comprehensive and the effects from climate change are mitigated.
Then there are revetments which are onshore structures with the principal function of protecting the shoreline from erosion. Revetment structures are flexible and typically consist of armor rock or cast concrete blocks. Revetments rest on the surface being protected and depend on it for support. They are relatively light structures and are well suited to locations free of heavy wave attack.
In 1987, the DID produced the simplified armour unit ‘H’ or SAUH as an experimental concrete revetment for escarpment and bund protection. Light but well interlocked, the SAUH performed well on the weak soils of the Selangor coastline. At Sungai Burung, SAUH was used in combination with mangrove re-planting in what was arguably the first attempt at combining a biological component with a structural coastal protection measure.
Labuan Blocks method which consists of concrete mass blocks have also been deployed. They are cast insitu, often with locally available material and therefore have a relatively low capital cost. Because they are portable and removable they can be easily transported to any places, reducing the cost of coastal erosion control project.
What the future climate holds
Climate change in coastal areas such as sea level rise, increased occurrence and intensity of storms and high tide poses major concern as they result in coastal erosion, flooding, saltwater intrusion and inundation.
As humans emit more greenhouse gases — primarily by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas for energy — sea temperatures are rising too, and that extra heat is making the ocean expand.
When water gets warmer, its molecules move faster and spread out more, which increases its volume. Scientists estimate that roughly one-third of global sea level rise can be attributed to this expansion.
The latest scientific evidence shows that even if the world stopped burning fossil fuels today, sea level rise is still locked in until 2050. But future emissions will have huge consequences beyond 2050.
If the world warms by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius above levels before industrialization, scientists warn that average global sea level rise could reach 70 centimeters by the end of century, threatening the viability of human life in some places. Temperature rise is already at 1.2C.
In the meantime, the family of Suadi Adar and other coastal population, may no longer find beautiful seashells along the beaches, but they can still see hope from the daily sunrise and sunset.
“So long as we can find food from the sea, we will be fine,” he says.