Many of us have fond childhood memories of visits to the beach and pleasant times spent there – whether sunbathing, walking, fishing, surfing, or simply enjoying the atmosphere. But beaches have even more to offer: They sustain life.
Most of the ecosystem is invisible to us, since it is within the sand, but we can readily appreciate the birds, turtles, and seals, as well as the commercial fisheries (clams, mackerel) that depend on healthy beaches.
Above all, however, beaches are remarkable natural defenses against the power of the sea. While seawalls crumble and cliffs collapse, beaches absorb the power of the waves by changing their shape.
Why, then, if beaches are such wonderful attractions, ecosystems, and sea defenses, are they in trouble?
We have impacted beaches worldwide, degrading them with pollution, oil, and litter, by driving on them, and by physically destroying them. Many beaches have been completely obliterated, and there are entire stretches of coast where not a single natural beach survives.
Instead, poor imitations of the real thing – artificial or “replenished” beaches – line the coasts of southern Europe, the eastern United States, and the Persian Gulf, to name but a few. Most beaches on Spain’s famous costas are human constructions – long, thin engineering projects that provide a recreational area, but otherwise bear no more resemblance to a natural beach than a city park bears to an indigenous forest.
Most beaches are being destroyed by our efforts to hold them in place and protect beachfront property. Flexibility is the key to a beach’s survival. When we limit beaches by building seawalls, groins, and breakwaters to hold them in place, we remove their ability to adjust, and thus fatally weaken them – rather like tying a boxer’s hands behind his back and expecting him to survive the full 12 rounds.
“Sand is the lifeblood of beaches.”
Sand is the lifeblood of beaches. Taking the sand from a beach is a sure way to destroy it. Yet, beach sand mining is widespread. Sand is a valuable commodity, equaled only by water in the scale of human demand for a natural resource.
Beach sand is often seen as a free and easily exploited resource, so, in many parts of the world, beach sand is big business. Ironically, sand is mined from some beaches simply to replenish eroded beaches elsewhere.
The value of beach sand is well illustrated by the theft of an entire beach (500 truckloads) in Jamaica in 2008 that was never recovered, despite a police investigation.
Beach sand has been exploited for millennia. In northern Europe, farmers traditionally improved the heavy soils by adding beach sand, and on small islands throughout the world, beach sand is the only source of aggregate. Where we once saw manual removal of small amounts of sand, however, we are now seeing beach sand mining on an industrial scale.
Singapore is extending its land area by dumping material in the sea. The demand for material has spawned an illegal industry of beach sand mining in the surrounding countries, whereby unscrupulous operators are illegally mining their beaches, loading sand onto ships, and transporting it to Singapore under cover of darkness. Corruption and weak enforcement of the law are the main reasons the trade continues.
Barbuda has long been famous as a supplier of beach sand. Selling its own sand to richer nations as far away as Europe is causing the destruction of Barbuda’s own resources and inhibiting its ability to develop its own tourism.
Throughout West Africa, poverty fuels the mining of beach sand. Beach sand is perceived like a cash crop that is sold for construction of buildings close behind the beach from which the sand came. With the beach diminished by sand mining, these buildings are at heightened risk of erosion even as they are being built.
The Atlantic coast of Morocco is experiencing sand mining on a massive scale to feed the demand for aggregate for developments associated in many cases with beach tourism. Line upon line of dump trucks sit waiting to be filled with the precious sand in what has become a major extractive industry.
The title of our book, The Last Beach, carries the implicit warning that we are in danger of losing our remaining natural beaches. In some parts of the world, that has already happened, and we can only sustain their artificial replacements by carting in more and more sand.
But it isn’t just in developed nations: In every corner of the globe, beaches are under threat. Often, this is because we are ignorant of the effects of our actions. In the case of sand mining, there is no excuse – taking large volumes of sand from a beach causes immediate devastation.
Putting an end to sand mining requires political will. Beaches must be protected. They are much more than piles of aggregate: They are beautiful, life-giving ecosystems and natural defenses.