Dear Sea, you are invited into our homes. The sand is gone

Sand winning at the beach is a lucrative business in the Volta Region. While it is creating jobs for unemployed youth, it is equally creating problems for the two local government areas with a history of devastating sea erosion...

Keta literally means “on top of sand.” When you remove the sand, there will be nothing on top. And that is exactly what sand winners are doing to this popular community by the coastline. When sand winners win, everyone else will lose.

Here is the story of Keta and Anloga, communities in the Volta region losing their soil cover while the sea waits for the intrusive destruction of the economically viable towns.

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Keta is a stretch of land sandwiched between a lagoon and, literally, the deep blue sea. Over there, economic life consists basically of fishing in the lagoon or in the sea and farming on the land.

“I used to produce vegetables like shallot, okro, cabbage, and carrot depending on the season,” Joel Ahiabu looked back at those days when he could earn between GH₵ 2,000 and GH₵ 3,000 a month depending on the season.

Mawuli Aziati, a resident of Anloga also recalled the days when fishing fetched enough to take care of the family. Not anymore.

“Our fishermen go to the sea and bring back almost empty nets. The fish stock is depleted,” he said and pointed accusing fingers at pair trawling, a type of fishing banned in Ghana’s waters.

Joel said he also lost his farmland.

“The landowner said his brothers in Accra wanted to build. So, at the end of my last harvest, I shouldn’t plant anything again,” the 30-year-old explained.

With the two main economic activities in decline, the youth of this area are literally digging elsewhere for jobs. They are digging sand.

“If you can’t farm or catch fish, you can fetch sand and sell. It is in abundance,” Mawuli Aziati rationalised. Sand winning, removing the soil cover for building and construction, is on the rise. It is an acknowledged reality in Keta, residents told The Fourth Estate.

“It costs GHc 60 for a trip of sand. Even that is expensive for most people. So, they fetch it themselves. You don’t expect us to see free sand, and yet go searching for it elsewhere,” Mr Aziati continued.

But the cost of each trip of sand is cheaper than the problems the miners create. While the youths remove the sand, the sea is removing the community. When sand winners win, everyone loses.

Catching sand winners

It’s 8 p.m. Five men—one behind the wheel, the other in the passenger seat and three others—were in the bucket of a rickety pickup truck. Inside the pickup were head-pans and shovels.

The five men whizzed past a semi-lit Zotorglo street in Keta, where The Fourth Estate team had parked a black SUV with tinted glass.

As the truck whizzed past, the men in the bucket cast suspicious glances at a black SUV and headed towards the beach.

The Fourth Estate’s SUV followed the pickup truck to the beach in an audacious attempt to patrol a sprawling coastline at 8 p.m., the moon’s poor illumination hampering our inexperienced efforts at tracking down suspected sand winners.

When The Fourth Estate team arrived at the beach, there was no sign of the pickup truck nor its passengers. The gang of sand winners had disappeared under the blanket of the darkness that clothed the shorelines of Keta municipality and Anloga District.

It was the second time The Fourth Estate team was at the shore in the night. Like the fishermen who caught nothing, the team caught no one. But by sunrise, fresh evidence of sand mining littered the shore.

Hordes of sand had been piled at the beach and footprints of vehicle tyres crisscrossed the coast.

The sand winners pile sand on the shores        Photo: Clement E. Kumsah

After the failed attempt to observe the sand winners at work at the beach that night, a drone was deployed into the sky to capture their illegal operation, but the screen was pitch black. Another fruitless effort on the second night of chasing illegal sand miners.

“They normally come in the night and dawn to fetch the sand because there is hardly any patrol from the police or the local assemblies,” said Marcus Nunekpeku, a resident.

He explained that there were countless routes from the coastline out into the adjoining communities. Once the sand winners suspected surveillance on one side of the coast, they could easily escape through a different route with or without the sand.

Beauty & the beast

Keta’s turquoise waters and clean beaches earn the community good reviews from local and international tourists. It’s a beauty. Only that it is next to a beast—tidal waves.

During sea erosion, part of Keta’s sandy earth is swept away and transported by the natural force of tidal waves. Tidal waves are already strong but they are helped even more by climate change, a condition in which the weather patterns are extreme. If the sun is hot, it is really hot. If it rains, it pours in torrents. And if it is tidal waves, it is really a watery battering.

Keta, Anloga, and other coastal communities in the Volta Region are not like some coastal communities in other parts of the country where rocky cliffs somewhat resist the troubling advances of coastal erosion. In the coastal communities in the Volta Region, the massive sand dunes acted as a natural barrier between the ocean and the land.

But as the coast vanishes into the sea, all that is left is the sand. It is no match for the pushy ocean which has already swallowed an undocumented number of homes and social infrastructure.

Crumbled walls like this one are common along the coast of the Volta Region          Photo: Clement E. Kumsah

This real threat has not stopped unemployed youth armed with shovels and head pans from exacerbating the challenges confronting the fragile coastline. They cart away the only barrier between the ocean and the homes, churches, markets and even shrines.

Although sand winning is banned along beaches in the country, it continues to be a source of sand supply for the real estate sector.

Data on sand consumption in Ghana is difficult to come by because the industry is highly informal.

Commenting on the possible reprisal of sand winning on the country’s coast, the Director of Institute of Environment and Sanitation Studies of the University of Ghana, Prof Kwasi Appeaning-Addo, warned of the fate that awaits Keta if sand winning continued the way it had been

“It can create a channel for waves to attack and erode the beach systems due to the forcing of wave energy at a particular point,” he explained.

The antidote, he suggested was for local authorities to provide alternative locations for sand winning away from the coast.

On law enforcement, which currently is lax, the marine scientist said, “agencies should be empowered to enforce the ban on beach sand winning. It should be made very unattractive.”

Removing sand to build houses that cannot stand

But why is this illegal activity so rife?

Keta is an urbanised community. It is a municipal assembly, which on paper means it has the same legal status as the Ayawaso West Municipality where the University of Ghana is cited.

Municipality is a fancy local government language for a dense population which comes with it a huge demand for housing and social services.

People are moving from rural areas in the Volta region to urban Keta. They need houses, which usually demand sand for the construction.

While the Ghana Statistical Service projected Ghana’s housing deficit to hit two million by 2020, the Ghana Real Estates Developers Association (GREDA) put their forecast at 5.7 million by 2020.

This means the demand for sand in Keta is not likely to go down anytime soon unless something is done to protect the coastal community.

But according to the District Coordinating Director of the Anloga District Assembly, Emmanuel Kwame Dzakpasu, “sand winning has not come to the attention of the assembly.”

“They are all in the communities and they would not report any issue to us,” he said.

Emmanuel Dzakpasu said there was a ban on winning sand at the coast, so he expected that the community members would “report to us anytime they see any truck going to the seashore to win sand so that we can inform the police to go and apprehend them.”

He said he got the complaints after the illegality had been done. “They [community members] only complain to us that they [sand miners] have been winning sand.”

The District Coordinating Director also had a complaint of his own: “We don’t have a standing force to be roaming the beaches to see where and when they are winning sand.”

What is the way forward? The Fourth Estate wanted to know from him.

“We will still engage the assembly members and let them know the dangers of winning sand at the coastline and task them to alert us anytime they see any truck at the coastline,” he said.

“Stopping illegal sand winning won’t be easy,” said Joel, the former farmer, former sand winner and now fuel attendant.

He earns GHC1,200 a month. It is not better than farming which earned him more than GHC2000 a month, but it is better than destroying the environment through sand winning. He remembers why he stopped. He said a scorpion stung him once and the fear of being killed by venom resolved his internal conflict of earning a living at the expense of the environment.

The Anloga district coordinating director’s idea of stopping the illegality however remains persuasion.

“We’ll encourage them to call the police hotline to get the people arrested,” he listed remedial steps to stop the removal of sand, a resource which the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has described as the world’s second-most extracted and traded resource behind only water.

The world’s appetite for coastal sand is not only going into real estate or construction.

According to climate change experts, anyone who wears eyeglasses uses a cell phone and toothpaste is creating demand for mined sand, rendering coastal communities of sand winning more vulnerable to the growing effects of climate change and rising sea levels.

The removal of the sand in Keta and Anloga also poses a threat to the tourism industry because beachfront tourism facility owners are faced with ad-hoc measures to save investments.

“When the sea defence wall was constructed, it brought a lot of relief to us because our business was protected but the sand mining particularly at a section of the shore that is not protected exposes us to a lot of risks,” a hotel manager who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals said.

The hospitality industry has benefited greatly from the construction of the Keta sea defence wall

Beyond Keta and Anloga, coastal communities including Biriwa and Moore both in the Central Region are also struggling to cope with degradation. And this continues from the Volta region to the Central region where truckloads of sand are scooped from the shores.

Beaches at Biriwa and Moore are under attack from the illegal activity                  Photo credit: Modern Ghana

Beaches at Biriwa and Moore are under attack from the illegal activity                  Photo credit: Modern Ghana

Ghana faces a tradeoff between housing deficit, unemployment, and the need to protect the coast. While the country’s laws prohibit sand winning along the coast, the reality is that the laws are not enforced.

Considering the sea erosion witnessed in the Keta and Anloga areas, it appears as the sand vanishes, an unwritten invitation is thrown to the sea:

Dear Sea, you can come inside our homes, for the sandy barrier is gone.

You can reach the writer of this story, Seth J. Bokpe, via email at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter @thekekeli

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1 COMMENT

  1. This issue nearly cost my life when I started talking about it and even suggested to the Keta MCE at the time to acquire a dredger to get the sand onto the shore and sell but no attention paid to my plea. Those old pickup drivers threatened to knock me down and one even attempted it at the Vodza stretch when I was returning from a program back in 2017. Some chiefs own these pickups, some assembly members are given a trip of sand and are quite over this. The fear of losing my young life made me give up sadly and that is why I am happy someone else is rising up.
    Another of this kind I am getting to know of is on the river Volta from Sokpoe, Adidome to Battor where the Chinese and some indigenes are using some big hoses and some diesel machines similar to the changfangs being used for the galamsey for sand winning on the river thereby threatening the ecology and livelihoods of the fishermen. The earlier we push Authorities to curb this, the better.

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