Sand Harvesting Threatening Biodiversity

Africa Science News

Unsustainable sand extraction increases the vulnerability of biodiversity and ecosystems, a new United Nations (UN) Environment report reveals.

This vulnerability is brought about by sand extraction in marine, coastal and freshwater bodies, which has led to pollution, flooding, lowering of water aquifers and worsening drought occurrence.

Sand and gravel resources are the second-largest resource extracted and traded by volume after water, with the global demand of sand standing at 40 to 50 billion tonnes annually
According to the report, the demand for sand has tripled over the last twenty years. This can be attributed to shifting consumption patterns, growing populations, increasing urbanization and infrastructure development.

This growing trend of unsustainable and illegal extraction, the report states, makes this a sustainability challenge; with a display of the various extraction impacts on terrestrial, riverine and marine environments. There is evidence that damming and extraction have reduced sediment delivery from rivers to many coastal areas, leading to reduced deposits in river deltas and accelerated beach erosion.

Unsustainable sand extraction does not only impact the environment but can also have far-reaching social implications. The report also shows that sand removal from beaches can jeopardize the development of the local tourism industry. In addition, removing sand from rivers and mangrove forests leads to a decrease in aquatic wildlife populations.

This report mirrors the current situation in Kenya whereby protesters have congregated on Diani Beach to oppose the dredging of sand. The protesters -hoteliers, marine experts, environmentalists, local fishermen and fish vendors- used outboard engine boats to block the dredging vessel, MV Whillem Van Oranje, from harvesting sand from the water.

“Let it be known that harvesting sand from Diani and any other beach is illegal. Diani Beach is likely to lose its allure of a clean white sandy beach once sand is scooped. Let them find another source of sand for port upgrade works. We will not allow them to destroy the livelihoods of those who depend on the beach,” said Mr Sam Ikwaye, the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers executive officer for Coast, during the protests last week.

The sand is being harvested from the Kwale beaches to use for upgrading expansion works at the Port of Mombasa. These works include Kipevu Oil Terminal, which is estimated to cost USD 400 million and the second phase of Mombasa’s second container terminal at Kilindini Harbour.

The report suggests that effective policy; planning, regulation and management will be needed in order to extract sand without harming the environment. Currently, sand extraction and use is defined by its local geography and governance context and does not have the same rules, practices and ethics worldwide. The report aims to be a starting point from which a productive global conversation on sand extraction can begin.

“We are spending our sand ‘budget’ faster than we can produce it responsibly. By improving the governance of global sand resources, we can better manage this critical resource sustainably and truly demonstrate that infrastructure and nature can go hand in hand,” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment.

To curb irresponsible and illegal extraction, the report suggests a customization of existing standards and best practices to national circumstances. It also points towards investing in sand production and consumption measurement, monitoring and planning, and further suggests establishing dialogue between key players and stakeholders in the sand value chain based on transparency and accountability.

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