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La Faute-sur-Mer and l’Aiguillon-sur-Mer beaches, Vendée, France; By Claire Le Guern

La Faute-sur-Mer

The Memory of Risks

By Claire Le Guern

The very last day of February 2010.

It is 4:00 am. Howling winds, whipping rains, infuriated seas, and eight meter high (26 feet) crashing waves, are muffling the desperate cries for help…4:00 am… Twenty nine human lives are being swept away, drowned in the frigid and salty ocean waters. They were in their sleep, in their beds, in the comfort of their home. They did not understand, they could not react, most of them too old, too frail, or much too little to run for safety and climb on the rooftops, like most of the survivors did. That very night, hundreds of survivors were trapped for hours, trembling with fear and piercing cold, in agony, and battered by rain and incomprehension. Only lit by the full moon, in the darkest night of their life, all were waiting for the emergency crews and help to arrive.

Modern mankind appears to be the only species on Earth whose propensity is to migrate its habitat counter-intuitively, solely ruled by will, preference, and or greed, against Nature’s evolution.
—Claire

These are horrifying facts, eventually, yet tragically surpassed by an intolerable truth. The potentiality of such a disaster was well foreseen, and highly expected to occur. And it did, in France, one of the most developed and industrialized countries in the world, in the southwestern coastal towns of La Faute-sur-Mer and neighboring l’Aiguillon-sur-Mer. 

When daylight unveiled the disaster, Prime Minister François Fillon held an emergency cabinet meeting and afterward called the storm a “national catastrophe.” French President Nicolas Sarkhozy, declared: “We have to find out how families in France in the 21st-century can be surprised in their sleep and drowned in their own houses.” Mr. Sarkozy added, “We have to shed light as urgently as possible on this unacceptable and incomprehensible tragedy.”

As much as this tragedy is utterly unacceptable, it is all too comprehensible and sadly, previously announced by warnings from many scientists, locals, and even more relevantly by an official 2008 report from the Vendée Equipment Department, DDE. The risks of marine submersion were known to the Vendée DDE, which strongly addressed and questioned coastal safety, citing in particular the fragile sea walls in L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer and La Faute-sur-Mer, as well as their existing location and development in flood-prone areas. “There is no doubt about the vulnerability of the Vendée coast to marine submersion”.

La Faute-sur-Mer and l’Aiguillon-sur-Mer beaches are the most southerly beaches on the Vendée Atlantic coast. Blue flagged for cleanliness, gently sloping with fine golden sand, these beaches attract a myriad of visitors from around the world, each summer.

On the Atlantic side, 8 kilometers of fine sand beach and dunes pass by the town of La Faute-sur-Mer, located on a 10 kilometer long and 2 kilometer wide Peninsula, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side, then onward the Pointe D’Arcay. On the other side, there is an estuary and the Lay Bay with the Lay River. In front, lays l’Aiguillon-sur-Mer, the neighboring town. La Faute-sur-Mer fragile environment of sand dunes is stabilized by 200 hectares of pine forest and Holm Oak (evergreen Oak) which were planted nearly 150 years ago. This forest domain is continued by the Reserve Ornithologique of la Pointe d’Arcay.The Beach in the town of l’Aiguillon-sur-Mer is based around two man made lakes and has been developed with families in mind.

These coastal communities, however, have been built on areas that used to be swamps. The towns are 2 to 2.5 meters below sea level, on a polder, in other words, in a bowl. A 5 kilometers sea wall, the “Digue du Géni”, was built in 1860 at l’Aiguillon, and originally meant to protect the land for agricultural purposes. As for la Faute-sur-Mer, a sea wall was built in 1929.

L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer is the French capital of the mussel industry with over 20 percent of the nations production being cultivated in the estuary of the River Lay and the Anse de l’Aiguillon. The main attractions of the coastal towns besides the beaches are the Nature Reserve, and the off shore mussel farms.

Not anymore.

In the early hours of February 28th 2010, a well-forecasted storm named Xynthia swept through France with powerful winds of 160km/h 90 miles, leaving a trail of devastation, and 53 victims. About half the French death toll was attributed to marine submersion and breach of the dilapidated and too low sea walls of La Faute-sur-Mer and l’Aiguillon-sur-Mer, allowing waves and sea waters to flood the villages, trapping people in their homes.

Brice Hortefeux, France Interior Minister, declared, “What happened in Vendée, was an exceptional combination of facts.” Corroborating observers such as, P.Bouteloup, a physicist who specializes in tides, or Eric Mas, director of Météo Consult, said that a chain of events was to blame as well as “extraordinary coincidences”: unusually strong winds, enormous waves and, above all, very low atmospheric pressure drawing the sea level even higher, (on that full-moon night, the tide measured 105 to 108 on a scale of 20 to 120) creating a potentially fatal combination for these communities located on the Atlantic coast.

Unfortunately, in light of what was previously known by the DDE, even though not ordinary, these events were obviously far from being just and simply coincidental, and actually followed an all too announced plausible, and furthermore, predicted scenario.

France has up to 9,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) of sea walls, with some of them built in the 17th century, according to Secretary of State for Ecology, Chantal Jouanno. More relevantly, about one tenth of them, 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), “can be considered a risk”. The European Center for Flood prevention, estimates that of the 9,000 kilometers of sea walls, at least 3,600 kilometers have no existing or identifiable owners, thus no responsible entity to maintain, rebuild or repair the dilapidated or inadequate sea walls.

 “The sea wall that broke dates back to the Napoleon era. Either we build (new) sea walls, in which case they need to be taller, or we have to build further inland,” said Philippe de Villiers, President of the General Council of Vendée.

When sea walls or levees are needed, it is obviously to “protect” a land naturally flood-prone. And indeed, how strong can a sea wall possibly be in comparison with the unfathomable power of angry waves? How high can sea walls possibly be? Scientists are warning us that, due to climate change and rising seas, storms are expected to be stronger, fiercer and more frequent than ever before. The France Nature Environment group says the recent tragedy should serve as a “shock treatment” to the nation. The group added, “By 2100, global warming will cause sea waters to rise by one meter, allowing a small storm to do the same damage as powerful Xynthia did.”

A “Plan Digue” (a Sea Wall Project) has been ordered by the Government to be completed within the next two months. Financing and responsibilities are to be reassigned and already the pre-plan opens doors to polemics, in term of responsibility, financing, costs of repair and construction, as well as to fundamental debates.

Sea walls are currently owned by eclectical entities: towns, syndicates, even individuals. The State is not much involved in ownership (1,000 kilometers of levees, mostly on La Loire river). Furthermore, most of the sea walls and levees are owned by entities that do not have the necessary financial power to maintain them. According to Anne-Marie Levraut, director of natural and water risks, Ministry of Ecology, most often the existing sea walls were built to allow farming, then population rose but the response did not rise to the new situation.

The Plan Digue is expected to contain a five-year financing project; 1 million euros per kilometer is the estimated investment on building and repair of the French sea walls. However, a fundamental debate is needed as per the sea wall’s relevance as acceptable defense in itself, specifically when comparing to the Netherlands’ levees never-ending reviews to see whether standards should be raised in light of various threats. In 2008, the Netherlands announced more than 100 billion euros (then $140 billion) in new spending through the year 2100 to prepare for the effects of global warming.

As much as the sea walls were a large part of the problem, solutions should not be built up solely on such a questionable base. Squandering taxpayers money and more catastrophes are to be feared.

As l’Aiguillon mayor, Maurice Milcent, said “The breach in our sea wall, that was not the problem! The waters just rose at once, overflowing our communities, built on swamps, on a flood-prone area. The problem has been known since Napoleon’s era ” and added, “According to our regional construction codes, houses had to be “fishermen style.” Tragically indeed, at L’Aiguillon and La Faute-sur-Mer, most of the houses located right on the shorelines, were one story homes, to conform with local plans and legislation forbidding two story houses. This explains in part why so many drowned, unable to escape to higher levels.

The 2008 DDE report, preceded by published studies as early as 1999 and 2001, clearly stated that Aiguillon and La Faute-sur-Mer have been built: “On flood-prone areas, on soil temporarily won from the sea, without taking into account the “memory of risks”. That is where the problem resides and the solution rests! Unbridled urbanization on risk-prone areas along beloved, yet, hazardous coastlines.

The storm has definitely exposed major flaws in a well-developed western country’s housing planning.

Flooding is the number one natural risk in France. One out of three communities are potentially threatened, i.e. 5,1 million French people.

The last fifty years, the rate of urbanization of coastal and flood prone areas has dangerously increased. La Vendée, as most other coastal regions, has experienced an increase in popularity, attracting a population of more than 80,000 in the past decade, generating the construction of new houses perilously close to the country’s poorly protected shoreline. Many retired citizen flock to the western coast for its clement climate and more affordable lands.

As most industrialized and developed countries, France has adopted environmental laws addressing risks factors and management in determined areas. The Littoral Law of 1986 forbids construction at less than 100 meters from shoreline for buildings, and 2 kilometers for roads. Yet exemptions could too easily be obtained. A 1995 law, Major Risks Prevention Plan law, (La Loi Barnier du 2 Février 1995) was adopted, completing a 1982 law. It defines risk zones from white, to blue (dark blue and light blue) and red, and regulates construction interdiction levels from strict to permissible with specific requirements (regarding architecture and material used). The law was meant to install a flexible approach that would easily adopt to the needs of local and regional authorities. Under pressure, local executives, Mayors and General Council Presidents, continue to deliver construction permits, reluctant to recognize and comply with zoning. Since 2007, the French Government has had authority to intervene by expropriating any construction should a clear and present danger exist.

The Secretary of State for Ecology reported that 860 communities are below sea level in risky areas, but only 46 have Risk Prevention Plans defining zones where building is permitted, calling that “very insufficient”. To date, only 7600 Risk Prevention Plans have been approved. Since 1999, 100 000 homes have been approved to be built in coastal zones, known to be flood-prone.

“Each time a house is built, it’s money for the community,” said Léon Gendre, the mayor of La Flotte-en-Ré, an ancient town on the Ile de Ré, impacted by the flood as well. “Money is running all this.”

Chantal Jouano added, “We have to tighten up the rules regarding construction in flood-prone zones and behind sea walls, regardless of pressures.” President Sarkhozy declared that, “A reflexion must happen on urbanism. We cannot be lenient with safety.”

Before this very catastrophe, were all the cards not already on the table?

Under mounting scientific and environmentalist awareness and reports, as well as occurrences of announced and preventable disasters worldwide, concepts such as “the territorial intelligence” (see link) are developed. While opening necessary concerted actions between politicians, scientists, environmentalists and the people as a whole, implementation of knowledge to practical, sustainable and safer territorial development is promoted.

The point of all discussions should remain focused on stopping unbridled urbanization and preventing avoidable deaths and the gushing influx of taxpayers money by replicating past mistakes or investing in palliative, political and unadapted quick-fix solutions.

Modern mankind appears to be the only species on Earth whose propensity is to migrate its habitat counter-intuitively, solely ruled by will, preference, and or greed, against Nature’s evolution. Attempts to control disharmoniously the ultimately uncontrollable forces of Nature bear too costly a price for us, and future generations.

“We must be reasonable, and build further inland.” said Philippe de Villiers. We must be courageous as well, and seek implementation. In a speech to the victims, on March 16th, President Nicolas Sarkhozy declared he would ensure that, “All lessons were learned from this disaster, and would request local authorities to prevent zones devastated from being reoccupied.” To date, 30 construction permits recently granted in La Faute-sur-Mer and l’Aiguillon flood-prone areas, have been revoked.

Today, the memory of the tragedy is vivid and raw, as France is grieving and solutions are sought. In less than two months, the official report will be released, sadly titled “Plan Digues”… Will the “Memory of Risks” prevail?

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.” -Benjamin Franklin.

May cease the insanity, as the Seas are rising… ineluctably.


Latest Developments:

Xynthia Deadly Storm: The Trial Opens
Four years after a deadly storm devastated part of France west coast, killing 29 people in La Faute sur Mer town, the trial opens. Four elected officials and a real estate agent are indicted for aggravated manslaughter…

Le maire de la Faute-sur-mer René Marratier placé en garde à vue, Le Figaro, April 13th 2011
Les investigations sont menées dans le cadre d’une information judiciaire ouverte aux Sables d’Olonne pour “homicide involontaire”, “mise en danger de la vie d’autrui”, “abstention de combattre un sinistre” et “prise illégale d’intérêt.”

Xynthia : a Year Later, in Coastal Care

Xynthia : les chiffres de la tempête, un an après, Le Figaro

500 million Euros Plan to Strengthen Levees in France

1500 Homes are ordered to be destroyed, Euronews

1500 Maisons à détruire, Le Figaro

Disputed isle in Bay of Bengal

disappearing island

By NIRMALA GEORGE, Associated Press Writer

NEW DELHI – For nearly 30 years, India and Bangladesh have argued over control of a tiny rock island in the Bay of Bengal. Now rising sea levels have resolved the dispute for them: the island’s gone.

New Moore Island in the Sunderbans has been completely submerged, said oceanographer Sugata Hazra, a professor at Jadavpur University in Calcutta. Its disappearance has been confirmed by satellite imagery and sea patrols, he said.

“What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking, has been resolved by global warming,” said Hazra.

Scientists at the School of Oceanographic Studies at the university have noted an alarming increase in the rate at which sea levels have risen over the past decade in the Bay of Bengal.

Until 2000, the sea levels rose about 3 millimeters (0.12 inches) a year, but over the last decade they have been rising about 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) annually, he said.

Another nearby island, Lohachara, was submerged in 1996, forcing its inhabitants to move to the mainland, while almost half the land of Ghoramara island was underwater, he said. At least 10 other islands in the area were at risk as well, Hazra said.

“We will have ever larger numbers of people displaced from the Sunderbans as more island areas come under water,” he said.

Bangladesh, a low-lying delta nation of 150 million people, is one of the countries worst-affected by global warming. Officials estimate 18 percent of Bangladesh’s coastal area will be underwater and 20 million people will be displaced if sea levels rise 1 meter (3.3 feet) by 2050 as projected by some climate models.

India and Bangladesh both claimed the empty New Moore Island, which is about 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) long and 3 kilometers (1.5 miles) wide. Bangladesh referred to the island as South Talpatti.

There were no permanent structures on New Moore, but India sent some paramilitary soldiers to its rocky shores in 1981 to hoist its national flag.

The demarcation of the maritime boundary — and who controls the remaining islands — remains an open issue between the two South Asian neighbors, despite the disappearance of New Moore, said an official in India’s foreign ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on international disputes.

Bangladesh officials were not available for comment Wednesday.

Original article

The black marketeers stealing Indonesia’s islands by the boat-load

indonesia
Indonesia. Photograph: © SAF — Coastal Care

Excerpts;

With more than 17,000 islands — from the jungly immensities of Borneo and Sumatra to unnamed rocks jutting out of the sea — you might think that Indonesia would not mind if a few of them went missing. But the South-East Asian nation is fighting a losing battle against black marketeers who are, literally, making off with its territory by the boat-load…

Since 2005 at least 24 small islands have disappeared as a result of erosion caused by sand mining…

Read Full Article, World Ressources Center, (03-23-2010)

Global Sand Mining: Learn More, Coastal Care

Chile Was Prepared for the Quake but Not the Tsunami

By Tim Padgett

In Chile’s second largest city, ConcepciÓn, the army has issued a “silence” order on some urban blocks so rescue workers can hear the possible tapping of survivors under the rubble of the massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake that hit the country on Feb. 27. The quake may be, as Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said on Sunday, “an emergency unparalleled” in the country’s history. But the death toll – fewer than 1,000 so far, despite the quake’s being one of the strongest ever recorded – is a tribute to Chile’s remarkable preparation and response.

Remarkable, that is, in terms of coping with what happened on land. Disaster officials now say the majority of Chile’s fatalities may have resulted from the temblor-generated tsunami waves that slammed coastal towns like ConstituciÓn, where 350 people were killed. And that points up the only area in which Chile and its government may have fallen short in this disaster.

If so, it’s a perplexing misstep by a country that has seen what kind of tsunami an earthquake this strong can hurl – as it did in 1960, when a 9.5-magnitude quake, the most powerful ever recorded, killed more than 1,600 people. Inexplicably, in the minutes after Saturday’s quake, Chilean officials told coastal communities like ConstituciÓn that there was little if any danger of tsunamis. Chilean television networks later aired video of tall, destructive waves pushing houses, cars and boats through fishing villages. “We ran desperately up the hill and watched how the sea washed everything away,” a woman in the village of Duao told a Chilean-TV reporter. The wave that hit the village of Talcahuano rose more than 7½ ft.

Bachelet’s government has suggested it was working with flawed data from its navy. Scientists say a tsunami’s likelihood and force depend largely on the amount of vertical movement an earthquake causes at the sea floor. The 9.0-magnitude quake that caused the devastating South Asia tsunami of 2004 yielded potent vertical displacement of about 16 ft. (5 m); Chile’s Saturday temblor, centered just off the Pacific coast about midway between the capital, Santiago, and ConcepciÓn, is thought to have involved significant vertical motion as well. Fortunately, no other countries in the Pacific Basin were affected by the Chile tsunami. “But it’s hard to understand how the Chileans didn’t foresee a major tsunami, at least for its own coast so close to the epicenter,” says a U.S. geologist who asked not to be identified because he is still studying the Chile data. “Not only was this one of the most powerful earthquakes we’ve seen in years, its movement was mostly vertical, which produces the most dangerous tsunamis.” (See how Asia recovered from the 2004 tsunami.)

But Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, which is analyzing the Chile tsunami data, says that precisely because the communities were so close to the epicenter, tsunami waves arrived “almost instantaneously.” (Most accounts indicate they hit the shore less than 20 minutes after the first quake shock.) “It would have been virtually impossible to mobilize quickly enough to get out of harm’s way,” Lubchenco says – especially at 3:30 a.m., when the quake hit. “They didn’t have the benefit of early warning in this case.”

Ricardo Zapata, a disaster-evaluation chief for the Santiago-based Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), cites three levels of damage in the Chile quake. The first was the collapse of older, pre-1960 buildings, many of which were further damaged because they were constructed too close to one another. The second was the failure of newer buildings like ConcepciÓn’s apartment high-rises, which, while not pancaking like poorly built structures did during Haiti’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12, in many cases tilted over and broke, because even the strongest foundations can experience a kind of liquefaction by vibration in such powerful temblors. The last was the tsunami wreckage – and if early reports are true that it caused the most deaths, says Zapata, “that’s something the Chileans are going to have to take a long, hard look at.” (See why Chile’s earthquake wasn’t unexpected.)

Still, says Zapata, who is heading up ECLAC’s evaluation of the Haiti quake, “given the intensity of Chile’s earthquake, it’s amazing that there haven’t been more damage and deaths than what we’ve seen so far.” Chile has been credited with mandating strict building codes. But even the best earthquake-fitted infrastructure would have trouble withstanding magnitudes much higher than 8.0. The Chile quake, Zapata says, “is off the charts no matter how you look at it,” which is why so many bridges and roads have been destroyed there. (See the top 10 news stories of 2009.)

Chile’s death toll could eventually rise above 1,000. But right now, aside from the rescue process, the biggest issue on the ground is the top priority for any earthquake-battered country: getting food, water and medical aid to the hardest-hit zones. Rescuers were hampered in ConcepciÓn over the weekend by tear-gas smoke fired at grocery-store looters – an embarrassing scene that prompted Bachelet to arrange for vendors to give free food away.

Bachelet, a moderate socialist who remains remarkably popular in Chile, hands her office to conservative President-elect SebastiÁn PiÑera on March 11. She is expected to ask U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a relatively small amount of American aid when Clinton visits Chile on Tuesday during her previously scheduled tour of Latin America this week. Clinton will no doubt praise Bachelet’s leadership during the emergency – as most Chileans have, despite the apparent tsunami mishap. It will be up to PiÑera to put mechanisms in place to make sure Chile is as prepared at sea as it is on land when the next earthquake strikes.

Slideshow

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Benin: Erosion-inducing coastal sand mining to be outlawed

sand-tracks
Photograph: © SAF — Coastal Care

Excerpts;

Faced with rising sea levels and coastal erosion caused in part by coastal sand mining, carting away of free beach sand for commercial uses, the national government has begun a campaign to save its coastal sand by digging up sand inland, instead. But communities near these newly-created sand collection spots are fighting back…

Read Full Article, IRIN (10-03-2008)

California panel urges immediate action to protect from rising sea levels

Maldives President Nasheer
President Mohamed Nasheed signs a declaration during the first underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives

By Margot Roosevelt

As California officials see it, global warming is happening so there’s no time to waste in figuring out what to do.

California’s interagency Climate Action Team on Wednesday issued the first of 40 reports on impacts and adaptation, outlining what the state’s residents must do to deal with the floods, erosion and other effects expected from rising sea levels.

Hundreds of thousands of people and billions of dollars of Golden State infrastructure and property would be at risk if ocean levels rose 55 inches by the end of the century, as computer models suggest, according to the report.

The group floated several radical proposals: limit coastal development in areas at risk from sea rise; consider phased abandonment of certain areas; halt federally subsidized insurance for property likely to be inundated; and require coastal structures to be built to adapt to climate change.

“Immediate action is needed,” said Linda Adams, secretary for environmental protection. “It will cost significantly less to combat climate change than it will to maintain a business-as-usual approach.”

Few topics are likely to be more contentious than coastal development. But along the state’s 2,000-mile shoreline the effects would be acute, particularly in San Mateo and Orange counties, where more than 100,000 people would be affected, according to the 99-page state-commissioned report by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute.

Detailed maps of the coastline, published on the institute’s website, show that residential neighborhoods in Venice and Marina del Rey could find themselves in a flood zone. Water could cover airports in San Francisco and Oakland, parts of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and large swaths of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach.

Roads, schools, hospitals, sewage plants and power plants may have to be relocated. More than 330 hazardous waste sites are at risk from floods.

“The rising sea level could be California’s version of Hurricane Katrina,” said Michael Woo, a Los Angeles planning commissioner and urban planning professor at USC. “Taxpayers and insurance ratepayers might question their responsibility to help homeowners and businesses which knowingly build in high-risk coastal areas.”

California’s far-reaching adaptation initiative reflects an emerging global consensus: Scientists can argue over how fast the Earth is heating up and diplomats can wrangle over emissions caps, but politicians must begin planning for the certainty of climate change.

Maldives Underwater Meeting

Cambodia Under Sandmen’s Spell

Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh (Cambodia). 30/12/2008: Pipes used for the filling of Boeung Kak lake with sand dredged from the Mekong.

By Corinne Callebaut and Ros Dina

Since Singapore was banned from mining sand in Indonesia, the city-state – which surface area covers less than 650 km2 – is struggling to fiand the sand it needs for its gigantic land reclamation and construction projects. As a result, it turned to a much less discriminating country, where the buying cost of sand remains quite inexpensive, Cambodia. For the last year, the provinces of Koh Kong and Kandal have seen a heavy traffic of boats, which sometimes arrive in dozens to dredge the seabed or dig along the coasts to collect as much sand as possible and export it to Singapore. There, companies will sell it for as much as four times the initial price, according to environmentalist NGO Global Witness, who also points at the lack of transparency around this market. Something that stirs greed but also worries marine conservation organisations, who fear the impact of the intensive exploitation. Justifiably so, as villagers have already complained with the authorities after the resulting collapse of their houses.

Dredgers Lured By the Sand

Koh Kong is known for its lush nature and hilly jungle, but the coastal province has also become a heaven… for dredgers, which are characterised by their imposing iron structure. For a few months, large boats coming to dredge the seabed have approached the shores of the province. Their goal: to fill up their barge with hundreds of tonnes of sand. Does the Cambodian rock dust possess any property ignored by all until recently? Actually, as Singapore has felt a little too cramped in its 647 km2 territory, it has urgently looked for great quantities of sand, an essential component of concrete.

Singapore Stirs the Sandmen

As the city-state had long exhausted its own supplies of sand, neighbouring Indonesia was its main supplier for many years. But in February 2007, the latter put an end to sand exports towards Singapore by imposing a ban that is still in force, as the relationship between Singapore and Indonesia remains conflicting. The reason: the intensive dredging by the smallest nation in Southeast Asia has reportedly resulted in the archipelago losing several islands, that were literally devoured by excavators. Authorities even expressed fear that the losses may jeopardise their territorial sovereignty. “Sand mining had caused very severe environmental damage in Indonesia, including in the islands of Sebayik and Nipah,” Desra Percaya, spokesperson of Indonesian Foreign Ministry, had then declared in Indonesian daily Jakarta Post.

Losing its main supplier, Singapore had worried about the higher cost of importing sand if it had to find other suppliers somewhere else and even forecast an increase by 3% of the price in relation to Indonesian sand. In their search for inexpensive sand, the barges of sand companies eventually dropped anchor off the coasts of Cambodia. The Kingdom offers not only unbeatable prices but also comparatively favourable conditions.

Shifting Sands

In its report entiteld “Country for Sale ” made public on Thursday February 5th, Global Witness, an NGO specialised in monitoring natural resource management and campaigning on human rights, devotes three pages to the opacity which it says surrounds the trade of sand in Cambodia. Several witnesses interrogated by the organisation have thus reported that many ships belonging to Chinese, Korean or Taiwanese companies, came to purchase sand off the coasts of Koh Kong province, with the intention for all to export it to Singapore. The organisation spoke to workers who reportedly claimed that documents, contracts and payments were all directed to the office of Ly Yong Phat, a Senator affiliated with the ruling party CPP who dominates business enterprise in the province and is often criticised by human rights organisations for the forced evictions of residents from the many lands he has acquired.

“I completely refute the allegations from Global Witness,” Ly Yong Phat replied in a telephone interview to Ka-set. “The government has granted me this concession for sand mining, so it is normal that I am the referee. Besides, I am not the only one responsible, there is also another person. I am in charge of the area of Koh Pao and Svay Ambel rivers, and since I started to be in charge of the mining, floods have stopped happening. I even denied authorisation to a Thai company because there was not enough sand… I think exports in the province do not exceed 4,000 tonnes a month.”

Also contacted by Ka-set, Pech Siyon, head of the industry office in Koh Kong, estimates the quantity of sand dredged around Koh Kong province to be between 7,000 and 8,000 tonnes a week. “Three companies have been authorised to mine sand for about one year: Ly Yong Phat Group Company [owned by the above-mentioned Senator], Odom Cement Company Ltd and Dani Trading. Each exploits specific zones,” he explains. “Apart from these companies, no one else has the right to mine sand. Some do it but under the direction of the three companies who have received official approval.”

Global Witness estimates that nearly 15,000 tonnes of sand are exported each week… which would mean an annual revenue of 8.6 million dollars for the sand industry in Koh Kong province.

Environment: Danger warning?

In addition to the lack of transparency over this market, another source of concern exists: the risk that the intensive pumping might endanger deep-sea ecosystems. Following the example of the disappearance and collapse of islands in Indonesia, Cambodia unfortunately seems to also suffer from the intensive sand dredging.

For example, inland, despite the bans from the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, many ships have come to extract sand in tributaries of the Tonle Bassac, in the area of Takhmau, in Kandal province. Yet, many villagers have complained with authorities that their house and land started to collapse, which had never happened before. According to a member of an NGO very active on environmental issues related to the Tonle Bassac, who prefers to speak anonymously, “the dredging has become intensive for some time. It is mobile dredging, boats are constantly moving from one place to another. It is completely illegal, but in spite of many promises, the government does not seem very active in fighting these activities.”

For his part, a worker of another environmental organisation, who also prefers to speak under anonymity, worries about the possible impact of intensive sand dredging on the seabed. “For now, we have not observed a direct impact on deep-sea ecosystems. However, we remain very concerned with the potential consequences it could have on the fragile marine life – on sea horses for example or on all the benthic species, like lichen or algae.” Echoing these words, the OSPAR Commission – in charge of implementing the current legal instrument guiding international cooperation on the protection of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic – has precisely insisted in its recommendations on the potential impact of sand dredging in marine environment. “All dredged materials have a significant physical impact at the point of disposal. This impact includes covering of the seabed and local increases in suspended solids levels. (…) Biological consequences of these physical impacts include smothering of benthic organisms in the dumping area.”

Yet, the conservationist believes in a solution that would enable Cambodia to continue benefiting from sand extraction while protecting nature. “Every company involved in the extractive industry or likely to have an impact on environment should contribute a sum of money – some kind of tax – as compensation. Thanks to this tax, the government could fund marine conservation projects and help Cambodian people,” he argues. Utopian? Possibly, but at least, he is not lulled by the sandmen operating in Cambodia.

Taken from the original article.