Laguna San José, lagoon located within the San Juan Bay estuary

Laguna San José, lagoon located within the San Juan Bay estuary

The geographical limit of the coastal zone for purposes of jurisdiction, according to the Coastal Zone Management Plan, is “one kilometer inland or additional distances, as necessary to protect key coastal natural systems, as well as territorial waters and the ocean or marine floor underneath these waters, which extend nine nautical miles into the sea.”

This definition helps establish the difference between the technical and scientific concept of what constitutes the coast and the official definition of what we know as the coastal zone and the scope of its application. Both recognize the importance of the interaction between marine and land elements that takes place in this fringe of varying size. In the coast, as well, there is a high level of diversity in natural systems and opportunities for social and economic development.

An analysis of the vulnerabilities of the coastal areas to natural hazards should effectively integrate the processes of planning, land-use ordinances, and zoning in Puerto Rico. These processes, in turn, should generate guidelines, codes, and clear standards that translate into designs that integrate the means for protection or advisable adaptations to prevent the loss of life and property as a result of coastal hazards. This analysis should include, among other things, the vulnerability to an increase in sea levels associated with global warming and climate change; and increases in levels of flooding, erosion, saltwater intrusion into aquifers, and effects on wetlands, estuaries and marine systems.

Use of the coastal zone becomes a risk factor

Forty percent of the urban land in Puerto Rico is found in the coastal municipalities, and 67% of the population lives in coastal areas. The demand for housing in coastal areas between 2000 and 2005 increased 25% over the number of site plans filed with the Planning Board in 1991-2000, which was double the number filed in 1981-1990.

Economic activity in Puerto Rico depends to a great degree on the business and service infrastructure located in the coastal zone, which includes a large majority of the port infrastructure and the power-generating plants on the island.

The coastal area includes the principal international airport of Puerto Rico, seven regional airports and eight maritime ports, including the port of San Juan Bay and the port of Ponce, both of which are being expanded. In terms of service infrastructure, five electric power plants, 31 transmission towers, 178 kilometers of major highways, and the water treatment plants of the island are located in the coastal region.

One of the sectors most dependent on the coast and its natural resources is the tourism sector. Statistics from 2004 reflect a total of 4.7 million visitors and the spending associated with tourism surpasses $3 billion. Puerto Rico has a total of 12,864 hotel rooms. A total of 1,788,000 tourists registered in tourism installations in 2004. Of those, 1,371,600 were not residents and 638,200 were residents of Puerto Rico. Some 10,292,300 passengers passed through the Luis Muñoz MarínInternational Airport while 1,348,200 tourists arrived by cruise ships. The entire infrastructure for transportation to the island and a large part of the commercial and support infrastructure for tourism is found in the coastal zone.

Historically, habitation of the coast in Puerto Rico was the result of the natural opportunities it offered. There were protected bays and deep water that allowed for the development of ports, and on the land there were flat areas that permitted the development of population centers, agricultural activities, highways, airports; and support infrastructure for society’s productive industry.

Tromba marina en el municipio de Fajardo

Tromba marina en el municipio de Fajardo

The infrastructure near the ocean and some tropical ecosystems is exposed to various levels of natural hazards. The levels of exposure and vulnerability vary as a function of two joint, principal factors: physical-ecological and socio-economic.

Among the physical factors are geographic location, geology, and topographical characteristics. Vulnerability should also be analyzed as a function of the surface area, the topographical relief, and the altitude above sea level; as well as the distance from continental land masses, the width of the plain, the presence of coastal formations and barriers such as coral reefs, lagoons, other coastal wetlands, mangrove swamps and littoral dunes.

Socio-economic factors that may increase the vulnerability to hazards include: the historical evolution of the cities, towns, and communities: as well as the traditional uses, activities and practices of these communities. Analysis of the social and political organization of a country and the level of information and awareness about natural and socio-economic systems are fundamental elements in determining a coastal community’s vulnerability to hazards. The level of vulnerability is dependent on the technological and economic resources available for facing natural hazards. Finally, the level of autonomy or dependence on other jurisdictions for preparation and response to potentially catastrophic events should be examined.

Natural hazards are characterized as elements of the physical environment that are dangerous to humans and caused by forces outside of human control. Puerto Rico is susceptible to a variety of natural hazards. Among the most important are hurricanes, tropical storms, landslides, earthquakes, tsunamis, coastal flooding, and flooding of rivers. Since 1989, six natural events led to the island being declared a disaster zone because of devastation to homes and public and commercial infrastructure.

When a natural event is labeled a “disaster,” it refers to atmospheric, geologic or hydrologic events that -due to their location, severity and frequency- adversely affect people and construction in the areas where they occur.

One of the main criteria for evaluating the vulnerability of a coastal sector or community to the dangers of flooding due to storm surge, tsunamis and increased sea levels is the profile of the coast and its topography. For the purposes of this analysis, we have classified the Puerto Rican coasts in two types: 1) coasts with lesser topographical relief and 2) coasts with greater topographical relief.

The evidence reveals that Puerto Rico has been subjected to fluctuations in sea level throughout its geological history. Huge deposits of alluvial material in the coastal plains on top of formations of volcanic rock confirm this. Many dune systems that contribute in the littoral dynamic to the protection of the coasts and the balance of sediments have been eliminated and, in many cases, converted to urban areas and infrastructure. Coral reefs, which constitute the first line of defense in dissipating the energy of waves and storm surges, continue to be affected by terrestrial sources of pollution, among other environmental stressors, and episodes of bleaching, which is also associated with global climate change and the increase in the surface temperature of the sea.

The main problems of climate change in the coastal areas of Puerto Rico are related to the potential changes in the frequency or intensity of hurricanes and storms, the increase in the average sea level, and the possible impacts of flooding on lives and property. Direct observations and analyses done by oceanographers, and the behavior of the coasts following events such as hurricanes and cyclonic storms at sea in Puerto Rico, allow us to project and correlate predictions for each segment of the coast.

Direct observations of the reduction of beach areas such as Rincón allow us to identify manmade elements that result in the interruption of littoral processes and their impact on the balance of sediments. Meanwhile, sediments from the land, caused by poor management practices in the watersheds, affect the integrity and productivity of the natural systems, such as coral reefs, which contribute to the protection of the coast in addition to their ecological importance.

One pessimistic scenario would be an increase in sea level of up to 1 meter, based on some predictions, or the repetition of sea levels that occurred in the past in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. This situation, in addition to increasing the vulnerability of the coastal communities to the impacts of higher sea levels and storm surges or tsunamis, would also impact the coastal aquifers. One of the effects on the aquifers would be the intrusion of saltwater, which would significantly impact the subterranean reserves used to store water.

Work done at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez, through the Marine Sciences Department, Sea Grant and Seismic Network programs, the new flood maps (D-FIRM) sponsored by FEMA, as well as work coordinated and developed by the Coastal Zone Management Plan in the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, have allowed us to formulate scenarios, project potential impacts and determine different levels of vulnerability of coastal communities to natural hazards. To this analysis should be added the lessons learned from the tsunami that occurred in Asia in December 2004, in which approximately 230,000 persons died, according to official estimates, and of Hurricane Katrina in the coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, where the loss of human life reached 1,600.

Scientific evidence indicates that we are facing a scenario of rising sea levels and that the patterns and distribution of hurricanes has been altered. Even when these scenarios and global and regional projections about the increase in sea levels are not directly applicable to the reality of the coasts of Puerto Rico, it is still imperative that they be considered when decisions are made about the development of coastal lands.

The development of urban maritime zones may be utilized as a transition area for intensity of uses and as a buffer to protect structures and new development in coastal areas susceptible to flooding due to storm surges, which may be associated with exceptional periods of rainfall produced by storms or by the increased sea level.

There are legal and administrative tools that allow integration of planning and protection strategies for the coastal communities facing these hazards. Regulation 4860 of 1992 and Regulation Number 13 (fifth amendment of 2002), among others, offer opportunities for incorporating considerations for protecting coastal communities, lives, property, and natural resources.

Author: Ernesto Díaz Velázquez
Published: September 05, 2014.

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