‘Sand mafias’ threaten Morocco’s coastline

A Moroccan man casts a fishing line on the water at a beach in the Atlantic city of Mohammedia between Rabat and Casablanca. (AFP)
Updated 18 June 2019
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‘Sand mafias’ threaten Morocco’s coastline

  • Unscrupulous construction contractors illegally stripping beaches of sand
  • Beaches and rivers are heavily exploited across the planet, legally and illegally, according to UNEP

MOHAMMEDIA: Beneath an apartment block that looms over Monica beach in the western coastal city of Mohammedia, a sole sand dune has escaped the clutches of Morocco’s insatiable construction contractors.

Here, like elsewhere across the North African tourist magnet, sand has been stolen to help feed an industry that is growing at full tilt.

A report last month by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on the global over-exploitation of this resource accuses “sand mafias” of destroying Morocco’s beaches and over-urbanizing its coastline.

“The dunes have disappeared along the entire city’s coastline,” lamented environmental activist Jawad, referring to Mohammedia, on the Atlantic between Rabat and Casablanca.

The 33-year-old environmental activist leads Anpel, a local NGO dedicated to coastal protection.

“At this rate, we’ll soon only have rocks” left, chipped in Adnane, a member of the same group.

More than half the sand consumed each year by Morocco’s construction industry — some 10 million cubic meters (350 million cubic feet) — is extracted illegally, according to UNEP.

“The looters come in the middle of the night, mainly in the low season,” said a local resident in front of his grand home on the Monica seafront.

“But they do it less often now because the area is full of people. In any case, there is nothing more to take,” added the affable forty-something.

Sand accounts for four-fifths of the makeup of concrete and — after water — is the world’s second most consumed resource.

Exploitation

Beaches and rivers are heavily exploited across the planet, legally and illegally, according to UNEP.

In Morocco, “sand is often removed from beaches to build hotels, roads and other tourism-related infrastructure,” according to UNEP. Beaches are therefore shrinking, resulting in coastal erosion.

“Continued construction is likely to lead to... destruction of the main natural attraction for visitors — beaches themselves,” the report warned.

Theft of sand from beaches or coastal dunes in Morocco is punishable by five years in prison.

Siphoned away by donkey, delivery bike and large trucks, the beaches are being stripped from north to south, along a coastline that runs from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic.

FASTFACT

Siphoned away by donkey, delivery bike and large trucks, the beaches are being stripped from north to south, along a coastline that runs from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic.

“On some beaches, the sand has nearly disappeared” in parts of the north, said an ecological activist in Tangiers. “There has been enormous pressure on the beaches of Tangiers because of real estate projects,” he said.

To the south, the UNEP report noted, “sand smugglers have transformed a large beach into a rocky landscape” between Safi and Essaouira. Activist Jawad points to “small scale looting, like here in Mohammedia.”

But “then there is the intensive and structured trafficking by organized networks, operating with the complicity of some officials.”

While the sand mafias operate as smugglers, “key personalities — lawmakers or retired soldiers — hand out permits allowing them to over-exploit deposits, without respect for quotas,” he added.

A licensed sand dredger spoke of “a very organized mafia that pays no taxes” selling sand that is “neither washed nor desalinated,” and falls short of basic building regulations.

These mafia outfits have “protection at all levels... they pay nothing at all because they do everything in cash,” this operator added, on condition of anonymity.

“A lot of money is laundered through this trade.”

A simple smartphone helps visualize the extent of the disaster.

Via a Google Earth map, activist Adnane showed a razed coastal forest, where dunes have given way to a lunar landscape, some 200 km south of Casablanca.

Eyes fixed on the screen, he carefully scrutinized each parcel of land.

“Here, near Safi, they have taken the sand over (a stretch of) seven kilometers. It was an area exploited by a retired general, but there is nothing left to take,” he alleged.

Adnane pointed to another area — exploited, he said, by a politician who had a permit for “an area of two hectares.”

But instead, he “took kilometers” of sand.

Environmental protection was earmarked as a priority by Morocco, in a grandiose statement after the country hosted the 2016 COP22 international climate conference.

Asked by AFP about measures to fight uncontrolled sand extraction, secretary of state for energy Nezha El Ouafi pointed to “a national coastal protection plan (that) is in the process of being validated.”

The plan promises “evaluation mechanisms, with protection programs and (a) high status,” she said.

Meanwhile, environmental activists are pleading against the “head in the sand approach” over the scale of coastal devastation.


More Basra water crises unless Iraq government fixes ‘failures’

Updated 19 min 41 sec ago
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More Basra water crises unless Iraq government fixes ‘failures’

  • Nearly 120,000 people were hospitalized last summer after drinking polluted water
  • HRW slammed Iraqi officials as “short-sighted,” saying they had not properly communicated with citizens about the emergency at the time

BAGHDAD: Human Rights Watch on Monday warned of a repeat of last year’s deadly water crisis in Iraq’s oil-rich southern province of Basra unless authorities correct decades of management failures.
Nearly 120,000 people were hospitalized last summer after drinking polluted water, in a mass health crisis that sparked deadly protests against the dire state of public services.
In a damning report, HRW found the generally poor state of water quality was likely compounded by algae that rapidly spread last year in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway that runs through Basra and provides it with its primary water source.
It indicated that the algae, pollution and high salination could together have sparked the mass health crisis.
“These combined failures violate Basra residents’ rights to water, sanitation, health, information, and property guaranteed under international and national law,” it said.
HRW slammed Iraqi officials as “short-sighted,” saying they had not properly communicated with citizens about the emergency at the time, nor released the results of probes in the year since or dealt with underlying causes.
“While solving Basra’s water crisis will take serious planning, time, and money, it is possible to address so long as authorities take their responsibilities seriously,” said Lama Fakih, HRW’s acting Middle East director.
“The alternative is deadly.”
The report relies on dozens of interviews with residents of Basra, experts and government officials as well as analysis of satellite imagery.
Those images revealed evidence of oil spills and algal bloom in the Shatt el-Arab and other waterways that contaminated the water which, when consumed, could cause abdominal pain, fever, vomiting and bloody diarrhea.
Besides the direct health impact, the water crisis forced families to flee Basra in search of potable water, buy expensive bottled water or keep their children at home if there was no plumbing in schools.
With increasingly scarce water, climate change, pollution and poor water usage, “Basra will suffer from acute water crises in coming years in the absence of strategic solutions,” HRW warned.
It urged authorities compensate those affected and develop comprehensive strategies to prevent pollution and illegal water tapping.
It also said the government should create a health advisory system to keep citizens aware of water quality standards, impending crises and how to deal with them.
In July 2018, mass protests over corruption and government neglect erupted in Basra, swelling in the following weeks and eventually turning deadly, with 12 demonstrators killed.
Iraq is classified as the 12th most corrupt country in the world.