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World Heritage site loses beaches to erosion

Update: October, 18/2015 - 09:38
By the sea: Construction of a high-end resort, Vinpearl Resort Hoi An, was suspended at the end of last year due to serious erosion at Cua Dai beach in Hoi An. — VNS Photos Bo Xuan Hiep

The beaches in Hoi An, famed for its cultural and recreational diversity, are eroding quickly as local authorities search for sustainable solutions. Bo Xuan Hiep reports.

Australian Tony McNeill and his wife were looking for a sunbathing spot on Cua Dai Beach outside Hoi An, a historic city and World Heritage Site popular with tourists in central Viet Nam.

Finally, they spread out their towels on a sandbag revetment placed on the beach to prevent erosion.

"We weren't aware of how much beach area had disappeared until we were told about it. So disappointing," said McNeill, 60. "The sandbags aren't the ugliest erosion remedy I've seen, but a natural beach would be far more attractive. Certainly, much of the charm appears to have diminished."

Known as one of Viet Nam's most beautiful beaches, Cua Dai has lost about 200m of sand over the last 10 years.

Beach barricades: Local authorities build a sandbag revetment along Cua Dai Beach in Hoi An to cope with the worsening erosion along the coast.

At one point, up to 30m of land was lost within two days, according to local residents, who said the beach had changed dramatically since June.

Nguyen The Hung, vice chairman of Hoi An City's People's Committee, said the erosion had occurred gradually but had been particularly bad over the last 10 to 12 months.

Sunglass vendor Nguyen Tan Hoe, 57, who has worked on the beach for 10 years, said that in recent months three rows of coconut trees had been blown away.

"It's the worst situation that I've ever seen. The beach is disappearing," Hoe said.

Speaking at an international workshop on rivers, estuaries and coastal areas held in Hoi An last month, Dr Nguyen Trung Viet, rector of the Central Region College of Technology, Economics and Water Resources, said the exact causes of erosion were not known, and that more research was needed.

Climate change and a reduction in sediment and water discharge along the Thu Bon River had possibly contributed to the problem, he said.

Hydropower dams, some built in recent years and others far earlier, as well as illegal sand mining in the river bed, have reduced the supply of sediment, according to Viet.

Eight hydropower plants are located along the upstream section of the Thu Bon, starting from Ngoc Linh Mountain in Quang Nam Province's Nam Tra My District.

Sand mines operate at full capacity in the river and its tributaries to supply material for construction sites along the beach.

Professor Hitoshi Tanaka, of Japan's Tohoku University, who also spoke at the workshop in Hoi An, said the upstream area had worsened erosion.

According to vice director of the Viet Nam Academy for Water Resources Tran Dinh Hoa, structural changes in the rivers, estuaries and coastal areas as well as deforestation upstream, have all hastened erosion.

Hirotada Matsuki, chief advisor for the Japan for International Co-operation Agency (JICA), said that riverbank erosion was one of the most severe problems in rural areas in Viet Nam.

Tourism numbers decline

While local authorities try to deal with continuing erosion, dozens of resorts in the area are in danger of losing their beach properties. As a result, tourism has been adversely affected.

Construction of two high-end resorts, Fusion Alya and Vinpearl Resort Hoi An, was suspended at the end of 2014 because of coastal erosion.

More money needed: Only part of the beach has been protected by sandbag revetments. Local authorities are still waiting for funds from the Government to do more.

Popular resorts along Cua Dai beach have especially been affected.

The Victoria Resort, a high-end property, has had to spend billions of Vietnamese dong to upgrade a sea dyke every year. Last year, it spent VND3 billion (US$135,000) to cope with the problem, but the outcome was not satisfactory, according to a resort representative.

Sunrise Resort, which is also located along Cua Dai beach, has been able to maintain an occupancy rate of 60 to 70 per cent, but the number of guests has fallen significantly compared to previous years.

Meanwhile, tourist groups have cancelled resort bookings or shortened their visits after discovering that several beaches no longer existed.

At Golden Sand resort, for example, beach erosion has even crept up to the edge of the swimming pool.

Nguyen Chau Thanh Thu, a assistant to the resort's director, said the number of guests in the last two years had fallen by 70-80 per cent.

"To improve the situation, we've worked with travel firms, but when they see there's no longer a beautiful beach, they refuse to send guests," Thu said.

Even though the resort has discounted room rates by 50 per cent and offered promotions, the number of guests has not increased.

Nguyen Thi Thom, 50, an employee who has worked for 10 years at Tan Loc restaurant on Cua Dai beach, said the number of diners had dropped by 80 per cent since the end of last year.

Motorbike-taxi drivers in the area have also been taking a hit from the decline in tourists.

Disappearing land: Some 200 metres of beach have been lost in the last 10 to 12 months. Erosion has occurred gradually over 10 years, but has worsened dramatically this year.

Nguyen Ngoc Thong, 40, who has been a bike-taxi driver for more than 10 years, said the number of drivers had fallen to 24, down from 40 three years ago.

Thong said that most tourists now visited Hoi An's Old Quarter, and then headed back to Da Nang. Instead they visit An Bang beach north of Cua Dai.

Recently, Hoi An authorities launched a project to build a 1.5-km embankment for VND115 billion ($5.5 million) that would protect the section of Au Co Road most heavily damaged by erosion.

The embankment is one of the city's seven projects to adapt to climate change.

Hoi An also plans to invest VND7.5 billion ($357,000) to replant 140ha of Nipa palm trees along the Thu Bon River. This would help curb erosion and ease the flow of water as well as reduce sand drift on the beach.

Long-term solutions

Speaking on the sidelines of the recent workshop in Hoi An, Le Tri Thanh, vice chairman of Quang Nam Province People's Committee, said the coastal erosion at Cua Dai was a serious problem for the province as well as Hoi An.

Many provinces in the central region had not developed long-term plans for the sustainable development of rivers, estuaries and coasts, he added.

Thanh said that all sand-mining activity should be strictly banned in the downstream areas of the Thu Bon and along the province's coastline.

More specialised dykes, other than sandbag revetments, should be built to shield Cua Dai beach from further attrition, he said.

Local scientists have also urged the planting of protective forests and new measures to retain soil.

The Hoi An government lacks the funding, technology and knowledge to resolve the problem and is waiting for support from the province and the central Government, according to Thanh.

Nguyen Trung Viet, rector of the Central Region College of Technology, Economics and Water Resources, told Viet Nam News in an interview that temporary solutions would not achieve sustainable outcomes, and might do the opposite.

The measures could cause erosion in neighbouring areas, such as resorts that have built their own dykes, which, in turn, would cause erosion at nearby hotels and resorts, Viet said.

Therefore, co-operation between scientists, businesses and provincial authorities is needed to effectively resolve the issue.

Viet said it could cost a total of VND1 trillion ($44.4 million) to tackle coastal erosion in the central region.

According to the Hoi An City's People's Committee, the city has spent nearly VND20 billion ($940,000) to erect iron poles and dyke sections as a temporary solution.

The committee has asked the provincial People's Committee and the central Government for additional funds for soil retention, and has also sought advice from experts.

In 2012, Quang Nam Province disbursed VND54 billion ($2.5 million) to build a 1.5km long dike on Cua Dai. Four years earlier, Hoi An proposed a VND800-billion dike system, but it never came to fruition.

Nguyen Van Son, vice chairman of Hoi An's People's Committee, said while waiting for funds from the central Government, the city had allowed businesses to build sea dykes to temporarily cope with erosion.

But the businesses must do it at their own expense, as the city only covers expenses for erosion that affects public park areas.

Ngo Thi Kim Anh, deputy director of the Victoria Resort, said many hotels and resorts along the beach had been spending too much money on erosion prevention, trying to take action before it was too late.

This year alone, Victoria spent more than VND10 billion ($450,000) to build a sandbag revetment.

Anh said the Government should seek long-term solutions for businesses and provide guidance as soon as possible to save the beaches.

Australian tourist McNeill pointed out that Australia had replenished eroded beaches by pumping sand from areas where it had been built up, such as river mouths.

"One thing we notice about Viet Nam in general that detracts from the beauty is the amount of litter. This, at least, is something that can be remedied at a local level. But, we would come back to Hoi An again," McNeill said.

"The Old Quarter of Hoi An was especially enjoyable. We still enjoyed our trip to Cua Dai, but the beach was not the only reason to visit," he added.

Similarly, Josephine Cheng of Hong Kong, who was also visiting Hoi An for the first time, said she enjoyed her time at Cua Dai Beach.

"The little town is amazing. It shows not only a traditional part of Viet Nam with its historic architecture and local village culture, but also its community structure," she said. "I could experience the lifestyle of the people even though I stayed in one of the resorts, because it was located near residents' homes."

"Cua Dai Beach is not the only reason for me to return. Hoi An should keep its traditional style of living. It's not easy to find places that aren't dependent on technology and commercial things. Modernism is essential to improve places, but it can sometimes kill the valuable traditional aspects," she said. — VNS

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