A beachfront house along the Garden Route, resplendent with magnificent ocean views and sand dunes for the children to play on, is a dream for many and a reality for a privileged few. But now nature is starting to reclaim that coveted space and government is taking note, putting in place legislation to discourage indiscriminate development and prevent further environmental and property damage.

WORDS Francini van Staden photographs Desmond Scholtz

The Western Cape government and Eden District Municipality are currently delineating a coastal setback or management line for the Southern Cape coast, as required by the Integrated Coastal Management Act. This boundary, which could come into effect as soon as 2016 and may be anything from 20m to 100m from the water’s edge, will govern where development can take place and help manage environmentally vulnerable coastal areas.

Current-day weather extremes, storm surges, seasonal variations and a rise in sea levels make the Garden Route coastline a high-risk area, and while government recognises private property rights, processes around coastal development will become even more stringent, says Vernon Gibbs-Halls, environmental specialist for Biodiversity and Coastal Management at Eden.

Beaches inflate and deflate; the shoreline moves and dunes need to play along. “We need to have space available for dunes to move, that is the nature of the Garden Route’s coastline.

“Because the Garden Route coastal dune systems have some very vulnerable areas, we can no longer support private boardwalk constructions, gardens exceeding the building line, private beach accesses or any private property structures over primary dunes.”

At the forefront of coastal dune management in South Africa, Eden uses state-of-the-art technology to guide the way. Its planning revolves around current coastal processes and developing dune management guidelines. Surveys have been completed for the entire district and the data will be used to create a digital elevation model to simulate future scenarios based on wind and wave data, and erosion modelling. This, along with risk analysis, will inform a draft setback line for ocean-front properties and those beside estuaries.

Once this coastal setback line is available, Eden will embark on further stakeholder engagement. “We want to include the needs and desires of everyone living on the Garden Route coast, from access and parking to subsistence fishing,” says Vernon.

A buffer zone
Key to Eden’s planning is creating buffers to protect property, the coastline and people in the face of extreme climate and natural events. Building restrictions on the coastal management line will apply not only to new developments, but also to existing coastal properties. Vernon says each case will be evaluated on an individual property basis, depending on where the property is situated within the management zone. Owners planning developments will be encouraged to err on the side of caution. In areas of very active littoral zones, where erosion and accretion are very dynamic, the setback lines will need to be strictly applied. A concerted effort will be required to ensure there is a reasonably sufficient and vegetated buffer to protect human life and property in particularly vulnerable areas.

To avoid massive economic losses to individuals, these zones should ideally be taken over by government in a phased retreat approach, a practice that is currently being employed elsewhere in the world, including Australia. “The ultimate protection for the dune coastal system, protection for property and human life is phased coastal retreat,” says Vernon.

The Garden Route dunes are sensitive, even fragile in places, but they remain key in addressing protection against weather extremes and climate change.

Dunes (green infrastructure) are a natural buffer against coastal weather extremes, and decision-makers around the world are realising the critical importance of consciously integrating green infrastructure into future planning. “This is how we are preparing ourselves for an even more dramatic coastal environment,” says Vernon.

Buffalo Bay – drawing a line in the sand
A prime example of the importance of dunes, Buffalo Bay beach near Knysna has experienced significant dune changes and damage in the last decade. As the shoreline progressively moved inland, residents had to band with authorities to protect their coastal properties.

In 2006 flooding and extreme weather saw the ocean claiming coastal public property – a section between the high-water mark and private properties, which served as a protection zone. “With the protection zone literally disappearing before our eyes, our properties became threatened and we requested urgent corrective action from the Knysna Municipality,” says Ken Whiley, chairman of both the Buffalo Bay Dune Association and the Buffalo Bay Home Owners Association.

The municipality and Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning allowed Buffalo Bay homeowners to undertake dune stabilisation work. Eight years and millions spent later, the Buffalo Bay Dune Association has built an artificial dune. While to the untrained eye it appears natural, the dune was engineered using geotextile sandbags, which promote natural water drainage. Once completed, the artificial dune was covered with a top layer of original dune sand and indigenous vegetation will anchor the structure.

Buffalo Bay and Sedgefield beaches are primary tourist destinations but shifting sands also threaten the municipality’s ability to provide basic services and pose a risk to 60 properties, including abstraction points for Sedgefield’s desalination plant.

“Sand from moving dunes block entrance roads, posing a serious risk not only to residents and tourists, but also the municipality’s ability to provide basic services such as solid waste collection,” explains Jonathan Mabula, Knysna Municipality’s Environmental Management department manager.

The end of an era
Ken says properties currently at risk should ideally never have been built in the danger zone. In reality, coastal zones became coveted lifestyle zones and at the time when the properties were obtained, the gap between the water’s edge and development locations was big enough that few could foresee the problem looming on the horizon.

Although property sales in vulnerable locations are currently unaffected, this may not be the case in future. Insurance companies are looking at applying strict exclusions or loadings on properties in front of the setback line.

Coupled with the cost of environmental mitigation measures such as dune stabilisation, property prices could rise significantly. While some coastal property owners have sold up and bought further inland, for many it is still a privilege to live close to the water’s edge – a privilege that might well disappear as nature takes its course and humans retreat. “Never again will our children have the privilege of living this close to the ocean,” says Ken.

Ad hoc setback lines
Until the Eden District coastal management lines have been adopted, ad hoc setback lines – determined for individual coastal properties in terms of the National Environmental Management Act – in conjunction with an environmental impact assessment, apply. Any development within 100m of the high water line – including building, infrastructure expansion and earthworks activities – requires an ad hoc setback line determination process via a prior application to the Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (Karoo and Eden Regional Office 044 805 8600).

Francini van Staden
Qualified in environmental sciences with post-graduate recognitions from academic institutions abroad, Francini has been working in environmental management and impact assessment in the Garden Route for the past seven years. She is currently an environmental officer for the local Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning and freelances as an environmental writer.

Click here for a low res pdf of the article as it appeared in Summer 2014-15.