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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Shoring Up Boracay's White Beach

Apr. 8, 2016

A growing number of visitors to an island in the Philippines is putting its white sands at risk, so efforts are underway to save the shoreline before it's too late.

Tourists have been flocking to Boracay Island for years. It's said to have one of Asia's most beautiful beaches and visitors are drawn to its white sandy shores.

White Beach stretches for 4 kilometers along the island's west coast. It attracts visitors from Asia, Europe and the United States, bringing in more than $500 million in tourism.

"It's a paradise beach," says one tourist.

But its beautiful sand is at risk. The roots of many palm trees are now exposed, and some are falling over.

Researchers say the changes began about a decade ago. That's when big waves started reaching inner parts of the beach and washing away sand, even when there were no typhoons.

Dr. Miguel Fortes at the University of the Philippines' Marine Science Institute has been researching the problem. He says that it was likely caused by a decrease in coral around the island.

"Waves, water, it erodes the land," Fortes says. "There must be a protection, and the coral is the number one protection against that."

As waves approach the island, they weaken as they go through the surrounding coral. But as this protection goes away, the waves hitting the shore stay strong, and wash sand back to the ocean.

Researchers estimate the coral off of White Beach has decreased by about 40 percent over the past 2 decades.

Fortes attributes this to deteriorating water quality, as more visitors come. He warns that in 30 years, White Beach may no longer be a tourist destination.

Boracay was once quiet, with a population of just 3,000 in the early 1980s. The island now sees more than 1.5 million visitors per year.

Today it has a population of about 30,000. Much household wastewater flows directly into the sea, contributing to the death of coral.

Officials are building a sewage-treatment system on the island, but it hasn't kept pace with the rapid development.

So young residents are working to protect White Beach. One of them is Adel Al, a diving instructor trying to regrow the coral.

He and others have installed steel frames that help regenerate the coral. An electric current flowing through the structures encourages growth. The method is used in Australia and elsewhere.

"If you plant coral, it grows only one inch every year. But when I saw our planting, it's more than one inches -- it's even wide," Adel says.

He has worked with Dr. Fortes to confirm that the method has been effective.

"There is really growth," Fortes says. "This (this is an) indication that there is a potential for that to recover, and maybe colonize further."

They're now working together to help enhance the coral growth.

"What we are selling in Boracay Island is our pristine, white fine sand and crystal blue water. So if it's gone then, there will be Boracay Island," Adel Al says.

Fortes and Adel are educating people about the beach's delicate ecosystem. They hope they can help preserve the white sands well into the future.

"We are obliged to share the knowledge, the results of our research, to those who need them," Fortes says.

Currently, Boracay's treatment system only covers 35 percent of the island's wastewater. They're building a new facility that will boost coverage to 75 percent. It's expected to be completed by the end of 2016.

Meanwhile, government officials want to double the number of visitors in 2 years. So it seems that they don't have much time.

That's why Dr. Fortes has started holding seminars for young people on the island, to explain the situation on White Beach and the importance of taking care of nature.