A breakwater is a coastal structure (usually a rock and rubble mound structure) projecting into the sea that shelters vessels from waves and currents, prevents siltation of a navigation channel, protects a shore area or prevents thermal mixing (e.g. cooling water intakes). A breakwater typically comprises various stone layers and is typically armoured with large armour stone or concrete armour units (an exception are e.g. vertical (caisson) breakwaters). A breakwater can be built at the shoreline or offshore (detached or reef breakwater). This measure is not directly addressed to protect the coast in flood events, but can indirectly stabilize the coast by preventing erosion.

To build breakwaters, rock size, face slopes, crest elevation and crest width and toe protections and aprons should be designed according to the natural characteristics of the sites as these factors have an important impact on the shoreline. Sand may build up behind breakwaters to form salients. Sand can accumulate enough to connect with the breakwater and form a tombolo (a stretch of sand developed by wave refraction, diffraction and longshore drift forming a ‘neck’ connecting the structure to the shore). Considering the significant impact these structures have on the coastal environment, they should only be considered as part of a global adaptive management policy, taking into account the characteristics of the specific site and the potential effects on the whole coast. The construction of breakwaters could also be linked to a beach nourishment programme, and  breakwaters can be used in a protected beach nourishment approach.

Stakeholder participation

If an EIA is undertaken, the EU Directive provides for the right to access information and to participate in the environmental decision-making procedures to the public concerned by the project. If a project creates a significant impact on a Natura 2000 site, the ‘appropriate assessment’ of the infrastructure project could include a public participation process, but this is not mandatory. Similarly, the Floods Directive, the Water Framework Directive and the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive establish public participation processes that may include these projects.

A range of stakeholders could be affected by the construction of breakwaters: for local communities and landowners, hard defences could negatively impact their property. Hard defences can visually disrupt the landscape, affecting tourism interests, recreational users and other sectors.  Waterborne activities can also be adversely affected if the installation of hard structures goes wrong.

Success and Limiting Factors

Artificial structures such as breakwaters tend to modify longshore drift, and have adverse effects on adjacent beaches by causing downdrift erosion. In general, to avoid these effects on the coastline, artificial nourishments and/or dune development are often preferable over hard structures unless there are other needs, such as the safe berthing of ships. However, the extent of the blocking of longshore drift, disturbance of adjacent beaches and degradation of landscape values depends very much on the design, orientation of the structure and the main wave/sediment transport direction at the specific site.

Breakwaters provide safe mooring and berthing procedures for vessels in ports. They enhance workability and provide thus higher efficiency in loading and unloading vessels.

Costs and Benefits

Construction costs depend significantly on structure dimensions. Costs can be highly influenced by availability of suitable rocks, transport costs to the construction sites and associated costs of beach nourishment.

In the Netherlands, breakwaters are estimated to cost about EUR 10,000 to 50,000 per running meter (Deltares, 2014).

According to Scottish Natural Heritage, in 2000 construction costs of breakwaters are high – GBP 40,000 to 100000 (50,000-125,000€) – but they require low maintenance; for these structures in particular, beach nourishment costs should be added.

Legal Aspects

The construction of coastal works to mitigate erosion and hard sea defences ‘capable of altering the coast’ fall into Annex II of the EIA Directive (codified as Directive 2011/92/EU): Member States decide whether projects in Annex II should undergo an EIA procedure, either on a case-by-case basis or in terms of thresholds and criteria. However, this requirement does not affect the maintenance and reconstruction of these works.

Any infrastructure project likely to have a significant impact on a Natura 2000 site must be subjected to an ‘appropriate assessment of its implications for the site’ to determine whether the project will adversely affect the integrity of the site.

The Water Framework Directive calls for the Good Environmental Status of Europe’s water bodies, including coastal waters. Coastal defences could alter the hydromorphological characteristics of coastal waters, for example in terms of water flow, sediment composition and movement, and thus to a deterioration of ecological status. Any projects that do so would need to meet criteria set out in Art. 4 of the Directive. The EU Floods Directive (2007/60/EC) provides a legal framework for flood actions and defence. The construction and restoration of dikes could be part of measures under flood risk management plans. The 2014 Maritime Spatial Planning Directive requires the consideration of the interactions between land and sea, along with maritime activities and adaptation to climate change. Breakwaters could affect these land/sea interactions.

Life Time

Breakwaters have a typical design lifetime of 30-50 years. This is the case for most rock structures.

Measure category