Barcelona’s reconnection with the sea during the 1992 Olympic Games was a significant milestone for the city. To enhance its appeal, Barcelona invested in its beachfront, importing large quantities of sand. This resulted in a thriving coastal area that now attracts numerous tourists and boasts a vibrant line-up of beach bars. While the beach may have been partially created through artificial means, it has become a major contributor to the city’s economy.
However, there are concerns about the future of Barcelona’s beaches. Across Catalonia, rising sea levels and winter storms are causing erosion along the coastline. Traditionally, the lost sand from winter storms has been replenished in the spring through dredging within breakwaters, estuaries, and ports. Unfortunately, this practice is now widely regarded as ineffective and environmentally damaging. Without these artificial interventions, Barcelona’s beaches could gradually return to their previous gravelly state, reminiscent of how they appeared three decades ago.
Erosion is becoming an increasingly urgent issue. Approximately 70% of the 700,000 cubic meters of sand sent by the Spanish government to the coast of Barcelona province in 2010 has disappeared. According to Patricia Giménez, responsible for the city’s beaches, Barcelona’s nine city beaches lose about 30,000 cubic meters of sand annually.
The erosion problem is further exacerbated by the climate crisis. Bogatell beach, located at the north end of the city, has decreased from 36,000 cubic meters in 2010 to 15,000 cubic meters today. Overall, Catalonia’s beaches have lost 25% of their sand since 2015.
Efforts are underway to address the issue. A group of experts has been established to study the future of Barcelona’s beaches. It is essential to recognize that beaches serve not only as coastal protection but also hold social value for the people of Barcelona, who use them for swimming, sports, meditation, and various activities. The group has concluded that, until an optimal solution is found, the city needs more sand to buy time while exploring alternative approaches.
Barcelona is awaiting approval from the Spanish government for additional sand funding, although any changes are unlikely to take place before autumn due to the ongoing tourist season. The Catalan government opposes further sand dumping, considering it a waste of resources. Instead, Mireia Boya, head of climate action for the regional government, proposes nature-based measures such as dune recovery.
The loss of sand is a consequence of various factors. Urbanization along the Catalan coastline, rising sea levels, and the destruction of sand dunes have all contributed to the situation. Additionally, ports and breakwaters disrupt natural sediment flow, preventing the natural replenishment of beaches.
The issue extends beyond Barcelona. The expansion of the marina at El Masnou on the Maresme has blocked the sediment flow, contributing to the erosion of the beach at Montgat, located eight miles north of Barcelona. In Altafulla, a town in the province of Tarragona, attempts to create sand dunes as a conservation measure have been unsuccessful. The absence of government support has forced the council to allocate funds to purchase sand temporarily.
The beaches of greater Barcelona generate approximately €60 million in tourist income, making them crucial for the economy. While Barcelona possesses other attractions, smaller coastal towns like Altafulla heavily rely on their beaches. Without them, these towns would experience rapid decline, leading to significant job losses.
It is widely acknowledged that replenishing the beaches with sand is not a sustainable long-term solution, even for tourism purposes. It is crucial to explore lasting and environmentally sound approaches that preserve the natural increase in sand. Until such solutions are developed, the need for additional sand remains.