It’s destroying infrastructure, degrading ecosystems and risking lives: The environmental threat you’ve never heard of

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By Amalie Espeland, WE&B

In my experience, I have rarely been made aware of coastal or river sand mining in academic terms or in my daily life. Only recently have I heard the term in my master’s course, in developmental reports and here at WE&B. However, did you know that the Economist (2017) reports that sand and gravel are the most extracted materials in the world? It is estimated by UNEP that sand and gravel accounts for up to 85% of the weight of everything mined globally each year! Due to its large operational scale and the dire word, “mining”, I knew it couldn’t be “good”, however I am still surprised by its massive impacts.

In Ghana for example, climate change causing coastal erosion exacerbated by sand mining, has swept natural resources and ecosystems such as coconut plantations underwater, causing destruction to turtle’s nesting grounds and restraining important fishing activities due to the destruction of certain ecosystems. Coastal infrastructures such as housing and hotels are also under risk from climate change and coastal erosion. Still, during my recent travels to Ghana, the few mining discussions I took part in were based on gold mining and its illegal practices and the subsequent lack of efficient regulatory systems. Ghana is Africa’s largest gold producer, and therefore it’s not surprising that there is indeed a problem of illegal mining (it even has its own word for it ‘galamsey’ in the local language). However, it seems that where other extractive industries such as gold mining, receive significant attention, sand mining lacks similar popularity in the development agenda.

I got to see the beaches and coasts up close when I was in Ghana. I couldn’t spot many walking or swimming from the beach front, and it was easy to see why. Waste such as plastics and cans seemed to me more prevalent than crabs and shells, and the cliffs seemed to be eroding at a high rate. It is apparent that Ghana’s coasts are in a vulnerable state and that the sand extractive industry will definitely not help the state of these fragile ecosystems.

Coastal regions in Ghana are not the only areas experiencing the drastic effects of sand mining. In the Kemboi’s sand mine in Kenya for example, Jack Omare, a mine worker, tells his story about some horrific mining incidents. He has escaped death three times, and the worst incident was when sand walls had collapsed pushing him and a truck driver into the Ndarugu river. Even though they both survived, horrifically that same month three people died due to sand walls collapsing. Unfortunately, children are also hired to work at sand mining sites, and forced to miss school. A worker from Kenya mentions: “At 14, I would opt to miss classes at Kaptembwa primary school to go off loading sand into trucks to enable me to purchase basic school items.”

Despite these dreadful stories, sand mining has not been given the attention it requires. It’s a challenge, mainly due to the significant amount of money businesses make each year. Even though sand mining from beaches and rivers is illegal in Africa, it continues to grow and contributes to local jobs, with an increased rate of participation of women and youth. For example, sand diggers in Benin are paid on average between US$87 and US$125 per truckload (140% greater than the monthly salary of an average worker in Benin). It is apparent that there is a need to simultaneously sustain the economy while reducing environmental degradation.

As with many other industrial activities, the link between industry and environment is complex, and there seems to be no straight forward answer. However, there are certain actions we can take to move forward, especially in the context of developing countries such as Ghana and Kenya. These countries also rely heavily on this industry, as increasing rates of urbanisation by the coast creates large demands for certain infrastructures such as electrification of buildings and water projects. Also in construction specifically, coastal sand is the most appropriate form of sand. Desert sand for example, is unsuitable for construction and other human uses. This is due to the size of the grains, where they are too small and round for most construction purposes.

By raising awareness as a citizen or company, working with local communities and policy makers to act urgently, can help educate people of the environmental effects. WE&B is currently working with the World Bank to raise this awareness of Sand Mining in West Africa and to bring the local community to the forefront of the issue (http://weandb.org/en/stakeholders-engagement-knowledge-communications-on-coastal-zone-management-in-west-africa/). Even though Ghana and Kenya are experiencing extreme sand mining activities, the provision of basic services are also of vital importance to the development of the country. Policy and decision makers should therefore increase the monitoring and regulation of sand mining activities, but at the same time support local workers and citizens in terms of education, jobs and health.  Currently, it is easy for companies to access the sand with little or no regulations. This has lead to the government spending a lot of money on combating sea erosion, when this money could be used elsewhere for public services. It also seems that large, commercial companies, having enough resources available, should set a good example and create guidelines for good practice, and look for cheaper, more innovative materials and building methods.

The message for me in the end is quite clear: There is a need for an increase in awareness around sand mining activities.  Even though some progress has been made, further urgent action is essential. It is important to engage multiple stakeholders and change the current perception or lack thereof, of sand mining. We cannot continue to ignore its life-threatening impacts!

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