Sand Mining Leaves Sierra Leone Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise

Photo Credit: Peter Yeung

Photo Credit: Peter Yeung

Twenty years after civil war devastated Sierra Leone, the country is rebuilding with a reliance on sand to make massive quantities of construction materials such as glass and concrete. Sand mining is a lucrative industry, and the coastal nation’s vast stretches of shoreline mean that sand is an abundant and easily accessible resource. Yet the construction boom dependent on this sand comes at a huge ecological price -- coastal erosion that leaves many vulnerable to the consequences of rising sea levels due to climate change.

Papanie Bai-Sesay, a biodiversity officer at the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone, told the Los Angeles Times, "the sand has been a buffer… we are destroying our first line of defense. If we don't stop, it will be a disaster for millions."

Al Jazeera: Sierra Leone: Illegal mining blamed for environmental disasters, November 2, 2019.

Forbes: How Sand Mining Is Quietly Creating A Major Global Environmental Crisis, November 29, 2021.

Why This Matters

Sea levels are rising faster than earlier predictions anticipated. In Antarctica, for instance, the massive Thwaites Glacier is now expected to collapse within 3 to 5 years. Such a catastrophe has the potential to raise sea levels by up to 25% across the globe, which would devastate vulnerable coastal nations like Sierra Leone. The threat to coastal communities is rapidly becoming real.

The Sand Industry Holds Strong

Fifty-five percent of Sierra Leone's eight million citizens live near the coast, and many have already seen the consequences of coastal erosion. But rebuilding is becoming a decreasingly viable option in coastal areas. For example, in the town of Lakka, limitless sand mining has left only "a thin wedge" of beach along which buildings and livelihoods are crumbling.

The country’s beautiful beaches were a major draw for tourists before the war. But, as Minister of Tourism Fatmata Abe-Osagie said to the LA Times, If something is not done about the mining, these beaches will disappear."

Despite such large-scale devastation, the sand industry retains its hold. A considerable portion of the country's population lives in poverty, meaning many people have no other option than to take jobs as sand miners, where they are overworked and underpaid. Few mechanisms exist to hold the industry accountable or prevent corruption. And local governments are often forced to consider economic concerns over environmental ones, particularly in the wake of war.

Sea level rise is, in large part, a direct result of activities from the world's richest and highest emitting countries. Yet the consequences are disproportionately borne by low emitting, poorer nations. Thus, solving the crisis facing Sierra Leone requires more than an end to sand mining -- it will require action from the countries most responsible for climate change.

Robin Hood: "This is Loss and Damage - Who Pays" narrated by Mark Strong, September 23, 2021.