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Brussels, 17 May 2004

European Commission puts spotlight on coastal erosion

Europe's coast is under growing threat from erosion. Coastal erosion is the gradual destruction of land by the sea. A fifth of the enlarged EU's coastline is already severely affected, with coastlines retreating by between 0.5 and 2 metres per year, and in a few dramatic cases even by 15 metres. These are some of the findings of the most comprehensive study on the problem of human-induced erosion ever done, "Living with Coastal Erosion in Europe: Sediment and Space for Sustainability," which was commissioned by the European Commission. Coastal erosion has dramatic effects upon the environment and on human activity. It can make houses fall into the sea and destroy roads and other infrastructure. It threatens habitats of wildlife, the safety of people living at the coast, and economic activities such as tourism. It is largely caused by human activity in the form of intensive development and use of sand for construction and engineering purposes. Rising sea levels and increasingly frequent storms and floods have worsened the problem. To cope with it, new and sustainable forms of coastal management are needed. The results and recommendations of the study will feed into the EU's forthcoming "Thematic Strategy on Soil". Tomorrow they will be discussed at an international conference in Brussels.

"We need to safeguard our coast much better," said Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström. "It protects people from the forces of the sea, it is an important habitat for many animals and plants, and it is economically important - many people derive great pleasure from spending their holidays at the seaside! The Commission will increase its efforts to ensure sustainable coastal management. But I also appeal to the national, regional and local authorities in charge to do their utmost to stop the erosion process. In the future, development projects along rivers and on the coast have to be much better screened for their impact on coastal erosion. This will require more cooperation across borders in Europe."

What is at stake?

Coastal areas perform several important functions. Coastal habitats such as mud flats, salt marshes, sandy beaches and sand dunes are valuable for wildlife. Dunes are an excellent natural flood barrier and natural filter for drinking water. And salt marshes absorb wave energy during storm surges, thereby counteracting erosion. Lastly, beaches and beautiful coastlines are an essential asset for the tourism industry.

Coastal erosion threatens all of this. It leads to:

    Loss of land of ecological value. Out of 132,300 km² (counted 500 metres inland from the coastline) that are under the direct influence of coastal erosion in the enlarged EU, 47,500 km2 are natural sites of high ecological value. This means they are rich in biodiversity and represent important ecosystems. Most of these sites are part of the EU's NATURA 2000 network of protected areas.

    Loss of land of economic value. The estimate of the current total value of economic assets located within 500 metres of the EU's coastline, including beaches, agricultural land and industrial facilities, is €500 to €1,000 billion. Public expenditures to fight erosion are increasing. In 2001, they amounted to an estimated €3.2 billion.

    Loss of property. Every year, hundreds of coastal houses in the EU have to be abandoned or lose value because of an imminent risk of falling into, or being submerged by, the sea.

    Risk to human lives. Over the past 50 years, the population living in coastal municipalities in the EU has more than doubled to 70 million people (16% of the EU25 population). They are increasingly exposed to the risk of erosion and flooding. During the worst sea surge recorded in modern European history, the North Sea Surge in 1953, more than 2,000 people lost their lives in England and the Netherlands.

    Destruction of natural sea defences. Erosion makes natural sea defences, such as dune systems, vulnerable. In November 2001, part of the dunes on the Jurmala coast in the Gulf of Riga (Latvia) collapsed during a storm. This led to flooding of the hinterland.

    Undermining of artificial sea defences, potentially leading to flood risks as well. This is for instance the case in Essex (UK) where erosion of protective salt marshes has resulted in frequent damage to traditional seawalls during storm events.

Causes and responses

Coastal erosion occurs naturally and, to a much higher extent, because of human intervention. Sand and gravel taken away by waves and currents are naturally being replenished by material that rivers transport from the catchment area, or by sediment from eroding cliffs and marine sand banks.

Rapid development along the coast and upstream has disturbed these natural processes. Each year, 100 million tonnes of sand that used to naturally replenish coastal habitats in Europe are used for construction, trapped behind river dams or blocked by engineering works. Natural areas, a buffer for the powers of the sea, are disappearing.

The effects of coastal erosion differ across Europe. For example, two thirds of the Belgian coast is composed of sandy beaches and the remaining third is sealed by construction. As a result, one quarter of the Belgian coastline is eroding, which is a high rate in comparison to other countries. Italy also suffers from a high rate of erosion, 23%, which is largely due to the rapid urbanisation of its coasts and beaches. On the other hand, the Finnish coastline is hardly affected because half of it is composed of hard rock, which erodes very slowly.

Erosion in EU Member States with coastlines


% of eroding coastlineCountry% of eroding coastline
Ireland19.9United Kingdom17.3

Coastal communities have often responded to erosion with so-called "hard" engineering solutions, for example, by constructing various types of marine protection structures and breakwaters. While reducing coastal erosion locally, these structures tend to interfere with the natural transport of sand and cause coastal erosion further down the coast. Of the 875 km of European coastlines that started to erode within the past 20 years, 63% are located less than 30 km from coastal areas altered by recent engineering works!

However, "soft" protection techniques, such as sand nourishment - when sand is taken from somewhere else to reinforce eroding dune systems and beaches - can also backfire. For example, in some cases sand was taken away from sea grass areas, which are ironically effective in limiting coastal erosion.

In the implementation of Environmental Impact Assessment procedures, required by EU law, the impact of human activities on these natural coastal processes and habitats has so far not been sufficiently addressed. Consequently, the costs of attempting to reduce coastal erosion are increasing (€3.2 billion throughout Europe in 2001). They are covered by taxpayers' money.


The study "Living with Coastal Erosion in Europe: Sand and Space for Sustainability" makes four recommendations to cope with coastal erosion in Europe:

    Strengthen coastal resilience by restoring the sediment balance . This will require identifying areas where essential sediment processes occur, and identifying "strategic sediment reservoirs" from where sediment can be taken without endangering the natural balance.

    Taking the cost of coastal erosion into account in planning and investment decisions. Public responsibility for possible risks and damage restoration should be limited and partly transferred to the direct beneficiaries and investors. This would result in a higher degree of care. In addition, risks should be identified and incorporated into planning and investment policies. Coastal erosion concerns should be taken account of in Environmental Impact Assessments as well as coastal management.

    Make responses to coastal erosion pro-active and planned. Instead of the current piecemeal approach to "fix" coastal erosion when it happens, a long-term and more planned approach is needed. It should be based on regional coastal sediment management plans aimed at restoring coastal resilience. The plans should comprehensively assess what is at stake and what the costs and consequences of different policy options (protect - do nothing - abandon the area) are.

    Strengthen the knowledge base of coastal erosion management and planning to ensure informed decisions and the application of best practice.

Next steps

The European Commission will include lessons learnt from the coastal erosion study in its "Thematic Strategy on Soil", which is due in spring 2005. It will also use existing instruments more rigorously to ensure sustainable shoreline management. These instruments are in particular:

    the Water Framework Directive from 2000, an important instrument to prevent sealing of crucial sediments in new river dams;

    the Habitats Directive from 1992, which can be applied to stop the frequent depletion of coastal areas that are part of the EU's NATURA 2000 network of protected wildlife habitats;

    the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive, which will come into effect in July 2004 and allow for the early identification and prevention of adverse impacts of coastal development plans.

In addition, the Commission will raise the issue of coastal erosion in its contacts with the responsible national, regional and local authorities.


The report "Living with Coastal Erosion in Europe: Sand and Space for Sustainability" was commissioned in 2001 by the Directorate-General Environment of the European Commission upon an initiative of the European Parliament. Its aim was to evaluate the social, economic and ecological impact of coastal erosion on European coasts and assess the needs for action. The two-year project started in 2002 and cost €5 million. It was implemented by a European consortium, led by the National Institute of Coastal and Marine Management of the Netherlands.

The study covered all EU Member States with coastlines, including the new EU Member States. Parts of the coastlines of Romania, Bulgaria and overseas territories of the Member States were also examined.

For the study, a special Geographical Information System was set up for the entire European coastline, as well as a database with information on shoreline management from 60 case-study sites across Europe (see the "Shoreline Management Guide" at the EUrosion web site).

The Conference "EUrosion - Sediment and Space for Sustainability" will take place tomorrow from 10h to 18h in the Albert Borschette Conference Centre, 36 rue Froissart, 1040 Brussels. Participants include Environment Director-General Catherine Day and other European Commission officials, EUrosion project members as well as high level representatives of Member States and regional authorities. Journalists who are interested in attending the conference should registre between 9h and 10H at the Conference Centre.

Further information can be found at


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