An uphill battle to save picturesque Welsh shore towns from drowning

HAVERFORDWEST, Wales -- Dozens of small communities along the ruggedly beautiful coastline of Pembrokeshire in South Wales could simply be washed away by rising seas unless drastic action is taken soon. It may already be too late for some, according to a new report.

While they are a magnet to millions of tourists, it is not only the picture-postcard hamlets that are at risk. As climate change expands the oceans through melting ice and rising water temperatures, vital road and rail links and even part of the country's cultural heritage face being swamped with sea levels forecast to rise by between 0.5 and 2.0 meters (1.6 to 6.6 feet) over the next century.

"Our message is manage where possible, abandon where necessary. But start now," said Emyr Williams in the engineering department of Pembrokeshire County Council, who is the coordinator of the West of Wales Shoreline Management Plan, designed to spur debate, and with it, action at all levels of government.

"Adaptation will cost money -- lots of it -- and there will be little, if any, for Wales. So we need to take a hard look at this major problem and make some very tough decisions. Some places it will simply be either impossible or uneconomic to defend as they now are," he explained.

The tiny village of Little Haven, nestling in a steep valley facing the Atlantic -- with North America the nearest land in a straight line -- is a case in point. The sea defenses have already been strengthened and can be easily raised further.

But the majority of houses are holiday homes, vacant for much of the year and therefore contributing little to the local community or economy for most of the time. Scarce money spent there on more sea walls would simply not be cost-effective. "The people will move elsewhere. It is not income forgone -- simply relocated," said Williams.

The larger and nearby village of Broadhaven, just around the headland and with a broad, sandy beach in front of it, is likewise threatened. But because it has a less precipitous rise behind it and is home to a thriving community, it is more movable and therefore more salvageable.


Other coastal villages, like Amroth in South Wales and Fairbourne in North Wales, are likewise in the firing line. "Fairbourne is simply unsustainable after a sea level rise of half a meter," said Williams.

"Bear in mind that half a meter sea level rise is the bottom end of the range we have looked at based on the U.K. government's own analysis, and I personally think it is more likely to be 2 meters. That makes it a problem not just for Wales but the whole world. In fact, Wales may suffer proportionately less," he added.

Worries about tourism, roads and rail lines

But suffer it will. The Shoreline Management Plan says some 1,600 Welsh properties would be simply swept away without preventive action, with some communities facing the loss of well over 100 homes and at least one facing the loss of more than 300.

Tourism is a key and growing part of the Welsh economy. In Pembrokeshire alone, more than 4 million visitors stayed a total of nearly 14 million days and spent more than half a billion pounds last year, said Alan Turner, the county's tourism manager. The industry also employs some 16,000 people, putting it on a par with agriculture as a top source of work. Any loss of tourist money would hurt badly.

But the potential impact of climate change-induced sea level rise on crucial roads and rail links gets more attention. Some may have to be raised or moved before the sea claims them. "The rail line from Llanelli westwards to Pembrokeshire runs along the coast and is virtually at sea level. We could easily lose that unless we do something, and acting now will be cheaper than leaving it until it is too late," said Williams.

"But this is not really on the road and rail planners' horizons yet. That is what we are trying to achieve," he hastened to add.

But while the old ports of Wales, from which trawlers harvested the seas and traders traveled the world, may need some significant climate adaptation work to protect both them and their inhabited hinterland, the same is not true of the county's -- and the country's -- major energy importing hub, the natural deepwater harbor of Milford Haven.

It is one of the ironies of the issue that, with fossil fuels being blamed for causing climate change, the two oil refineries being fed by the massive tankers moored at the jetties stretching far into the harbor, as well as the huge two liquefied natural gas import terminals, are sited comfortably above sea level.

"They are high and dry. All they need to do if the sea level rises as far we think it might is raise the height of the jetties and carry on as normal," said Williams.

Triage looms for valued places

Many of Wales' coastal historical monuments, ranging from Neolithic hill forts to other ancient fortifications, may be doomed. "I don't really see there is any chance of protecting most of them. It is too difficult and too expensive," said Williams. "The council will have to decide which are the most important sites -- culturally and for tourism -- defend them and dig, and then abandon the rest. There are some very difficult decisions to make there," he added.

The people responsible for safeguarding the local ecology and wildlife also have some serious head-scratching to do in the next few years. Under E.U. rules, protected habitats must be protected, or at least moved to safety if protection proves impossible. But with decisions to make on what to protect from the sea and where, there is every chance that saving one area will damage another.

Williams is already resigned to the fact that he, and Wales, are likely to be left to their own devices when it comes to allocation of scarce funds. "The majority of the money will go on London -- it always does -- and what few crumbs may be left over for us will be channeled to protecting the major Welsh cities like Cardiff, Swansea and Newport," he said.

He worries that plans for a £15 billion ($24.4 billion) dam across the River Severn estuary, scrapped last year for lack of funds, will be resurrected as a way to defend these cities. It was first proposed as a way of using the river's huge tides to produce up to 5 percent of the country's electricity without generating carbon. Environmental groups argued it would drown major areas of protected natural habitat.

As a way to defend the cities and generate clean power, he thinks, the dam will sell, politically. "And you have the environmentalists over a barrel on the basis that if you build the barrage, you lose the habitat, but it will be lost in any case to sea level rise if you don't build."

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