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Human impact on the Australian coast

The previous chapter focused on the importance of understanding coastal processes in order to better inform coastal management. Although the emphasis was on the processes themselves, the eight coastal examples linked the understanding of coastal processes to the management issues for each of the respective examples. This chapter, however, attempts to place a focus on the human impact rather than the processes but, as will become apparent, it is necessary to place this in context of the coastal processes that are being affected by the impact.

Coastal impacts from our cities

The great majority of Australians live on or near the coast (see figure 3.1) in the east of the continent, in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. To a lesser extent there is a population concentration at the south-western tip of the continent. Australia has been an urban country for 200 years, and at the start of the 21 st century about 70% of its population lives in urban centres of more than 100 000 people. Almost all these centres are at the coast. This includes all capital cities (except Canberra) and large urban centres such as Cairns, Townsville, Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast, and Wollongong. Smaller towns and cities are also mainly at the coast, and today more than 80% of Australians live within the coastal zone.

The RAC Coastal Zone Enquiry showed that more than half of the total population growth in Australia between 1971 to 1991 (see table 3.1) took place in capital cities, and that growth rates were most rapid in the immediate coastal divisions (RAC 1993b).

Figure 3.1 Population distribution in Australia, 2000

Population distribution in Australia, 2000

Source: ABS 2002

Table 3.1 Changes in population in metropolitan areas, 1971-91

Statistical division

Population change

Percentage change


603 033


Coastal region

140 067



488 540


Coastal region

111 088



465 167


Coastal region

166 688



343 296


Coastal region

312 662



180 924


Coastal region

9 515



440 066


Coastal region

194 894



28 622


Coastal region

16 375



40 957


1 Gold Coast included as a metropolitan area

Source: Data from RAC 1993b, pp. 99-101

Pressures from human activities that affect the coastal and marine environment are at their greatest where population is most concentrated within the coastal zone, as in the metropolitan areas. The numerous impacts include clearance and construction in sensitive areas such as sand dunes and coastal wetlands, erection of structures such as breakwaters, groynes and seawalls, excavation dredging and the disposal of sediments, land reclamation, canal development, construction of marinas and small craft facilities, and the discharge of wastewater – stormwater and effluent.

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