It is Saturday morning and Sugar Land beach in Sierra Leone’s Freetown Peninsula is heaving with activity.
However, the scene is not of families enjoying a weekend outside the capital, but of hundreds of workers shovelling sand into lorries.
Artisanal sand extraction provides the building blocks for Sierra Leone’s construction industry. The sand is extracted by locals, paid by construction companies, who receive sand direct to their building sites.
This lucrative business provides crucial employment in a country bereft of jobs but is largely unregulated and wreaks havoc on the coastal environment.
Professor Strasser-King, Presidential Advisor in Sierra Leone, recently presented a paper warning that coastal sand extraction deprives beaches of replenishment making the coastline more vulnerable to erosion and shoreline retreat.
Other consequences are the collapse of dunes and the destruction of coastal property and road infrastructure.
The irony is that this infrastructure was most likely built using sand from Sierra Leone’s beaches, as will be the roads and buildings that replace those claimed by the sea. The situation at Sugar Land is typical of a wider trend taking place across the country and in much of coastal West Africa.
Dr. Johnson, Coordinator for the National Adaption Programme of Action (NAPA), observes that coastal erosion has reached rates of up to 6 metres a year in some parts of Sierra Leone, including beaches along the Freetown Peninsula.
This will only increase with rising sea levels.
The Ministry of Tourism has begun to worry about the threat to some of the most valuable land in the country and is considering hard engineering solutions to the problem.
Many people believe there is an infinite amount of sand and fail to make the connection between sand extraction and coastal erosion; a point of view which perhaps extends to the upper echelons of government.
Strasser-King is on a mission to change this perception and to establish more rigorous building codes and extraction management practices.
But unless alternative extraction sites and employment for the coastal population can be found, Sierra Leone’s construction industry will continue to build with one hand and take away with the other.
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