Mediterranean edges ever closer to home

VIAS, FRANCE (AFP) – After fleeing to France to escape the Spanish Civil War, Amalia Romero’s family eventually managed to build a home on the south coast directly looking out over the Mediterranean.

But today, the sea is gradually gnawing away at their refuge on a coastline that has grown vulnerable to the ravages of climate change.

“It’s a harsh fate after we’ve devoted all our efforts, all our life, to having a roof over our family’s head,” Romero said.

In 1939, she was among the exodus, or Retirada, of nearly half a million Spaniards who fled dictator General Francisco Franco’s forces and crossed the border into France, where many ended up initially in internment camps.

Now aged 94, the cheerful, determined woman, who worked in the fish and agriculture industry, spoke to AFP at her house, built in 1956 at Vias beach, about 300 kilometres north of the Spanish city of Barcelona.

As well as a panoramic vista across the ocean, the veranda off the house’s first-floor living room affords views of the Pyrenees.

A view of a beach camp site that shrunk because of the coastal erosion, in Vias, near Montpellier, southern France. PHOTOS: AFP
The house of Amalia Romero, 90, is beset by coastal erosion

Her parents, on their release from the French camps, managed to buy this parcel of land, at the time overgrown with vines, and built a new life for themselves.

Back then, Romero said, “the dunes (in front of the house) used to gently slope down towards the sea”.

Fishermen had plenty of space on the beach to build shacks, pull their boats onto the sand and spread out their nets, she added, nostalgically recalling her “lost paradise”.

Since then, a wide chunk of land has been “eaten by the sea” and the garden now abruptly drops down to the lashing waves.

The sea regularly sweeps away the rock fill, sea walls, bridges and other measures undertaken at a cost of millions of euros to artificially recreate the beach.

The widow and mother of four, who now lives alone, said it “took some time” to realise that the Mediterranean was creeping ever closer.

“In the 1990s, suddenly it all dawned on us after several heavy sea swells, but it was already very serious,” she said.

Vias beach lies on an approximately 180-kilometre stretch known for its low and sandy coastline, which is “therefore extremely vulnerable to erosion, coastal flooding and rising sea levels”, said geographer Alexandre Brun, of the Paul-Valery University in the southern city of Montpellier.

Globally, sea levels rose by about 15 centimetres in the 20th Century and the increase is accelerating, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

By 2050, more than a billion people like Romero will be living in coastal regions that are particularly vulnerable to floods or extreme weather events.

While the very existence of some islands, notably in the Pacific Ocean, is threatened, Europe, too, has not been spared.

France is among the most affected, along with the Netherlands and Belgium among others, said coastal risk and climate change specialist Goneri Le Cozannet at the French Geological Survey, who contributes to the IPCC expert reports.

Ten per cent of mainland France’s population, or 6.2 million people, live in coastal communities, according to figures from the ministry for the ecological transition.

Erosion already affects a quarter of mainland France’s coastline, the environment ministry said.

Some 1.4 million people and 165,000 buildings are threatened by coastal flooding, it warned.

Historical sites risk being swallowed up, among them gems such as the Cosquer Cave near the port city of Marseille. With its prehistoric rock art engravings of fish, penguins and seals, the cave is already partially submerged.

Areas of natural beauty are also in jeopardy, like the southern Camargue wetland with its diverse flora and fauna and famous pink flamingos.

Global warming adds to the strength and frequency of storms that weaken the coastline, tragically highlighted by the powerful storm, Xynthia, along the Atlantic coast in February 2010, which killed 47 people in France.

However, as in a number of countries where the coastline is under threat, denial has been prevalent.

The state has long built hundreds of thousands of homes, ports, businesses and infrastructure on the southern coast in areas “which happened to be fragile, low and sandy”, Brun, the geographer, said.

Whereas historically, he added, humans shied away from settling close to the coast to avoid mosquitoes and to protect themselves from invasion and the intensity of storms.

Vias’ black volcanic stone church, built in the 14th and 15th Centuries in the original village for instance, is situated inland, more than 2.5 kilometre north of Vias beach.

While rail travel helped encourage the building of the first seaside resorts in the 19th Century, in the 1960s, the government under President Charles de Gaulle further developed the coastal economy in the Mediterranean region.

Big concrete residential developments went up closer to the sea in places like La Grande Motte to cater for mass tourism “with the idea that one can control nature”, Brun said.

Such constructions alter the ocean’s currents and sedimentary circulation, while dams, which from the 19th Century became more common on rivers, also reduce sediment delivery into the sea.

For years, governments have given “contradictory” orders, Brun believed.

Sometimes they ask residents to move back from the coast, which is problematic in areas with lakes or close to rivers that can suddenly burst their banks.

But, on the other hand, the state hands out building permits fostering “a commercial circus that turns areas in the immediate vicinity of beaches into concrete”, seen as a money-spinner especially in poor towns like Vias, Brun said.

“In the end, we continue to make the same mistakes,” he lamented.

Contacted by AFP for a comment, the Ecological Transition Ministry did not respond.

Local elected officials meanwhile are torn – aware of the risk, but also of the strong ties that people have with their own corner of the world.

“To transform our population into climate migrants is brutal. They’d be giving up their history… expropriation always leaves a wound,” a mayor from a Mediterranean coastal town told AFP.

For years, associations and countries have talked about encouraging environmentally friendlier buildings along coastlines, or even floating homes, a concept that captures the imaginations of architecture students like those in Montpellier.

In Europe however, their implementation remains “experimental”, according to coastal risk expert Le Cozannet.

He warned that attempts to “fix” the coastline through engineering were still preferred but were doomed in the medium term “if we don’t limit greenhouse gas emissions”.

In Sete, an old port city with canals, about 30 kilometres from Vias, the Mediterranean’s biggest coastal conservation operation has been under way since 2013, costing more than EUR55 million.

It involves a swell attenuator – submerged textile tubes filled with sand – that aims to reduce the impact of wave surges on the coast.

Jean-Luc Romero, one of Amalia’s sons who heads a residents’ association in Vias, said authorities should take into account the experience of the local population who know the sea.

His family is now putting its hopes in new nets which retain the sand.

By capturing sand swirling about in the water, the nets aim to stop dune erosion, said Dominique Michon, manager of the company, Able, which has positioned the nets in the northern Somme Bay and on the Opal Coast.

And results are encouraging, according to the state agency, the Centre for Studies and Expertise on Risks, the Environment, Mobility and Urban Planning.

While a national fund has been established to help those facing flooding risks, the Romero family complains that no compensation is available for coastal erosion – as residents of the Signal building at Soulac-sur-Mer in western France are also only too aware.

Constructed 200 metres from the shore in 1967, it is now threatening to collapse into the Atlantic.

After six years of fighting, last November residents of the abandoned building won a compensation agreement in principle.

“This is an exceptional case and should remain so,” the head of the southwestern Nouvelle-Aquitaine region Fabienne Buccio said at the time.

Amalia Romero hopes to be able to stay in her house, where four generations of her family have lived at one time or another, and pass it on to her children.

“My whole life is here, we didn’t fall from the sky, we were brought by war,” she said.

When the wind is howling and the waves crashing, Romero, who is now almost completely blind, “finds refuge” in her bedroom facing inland.

She closes the doors and puts on music, loudly, she said, “to fight off the agonising uproar”.