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SUVA, Fiji (Islands Business Magazine, April 2007) – The President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, says regardless of the issues surrounding climate change and sea level rise, finding a sustainable source of building aggregates is a priority issue for his government.

"Many countries can tear down mountains but here you have to quarry the very land on which you are standing. We are living in a country, which, on average, is barely two metres above sea level. People have to be made aware that if they keep taking the very sand on which they are on, there will no longer be any sand," he says.

The Kiribati Government is now developing plans for a new company to dredge and sell the much-needed aggregates from the South Tarawa lagoon. The government hopes this European Union-funded [project] could help stem the damaging practice of mining sand and gravel from Tarawa’s most vulnerable beaches.

A recent survey by SOPAC (the Pacific Islands Applied Geoscience Commission), has found that householders are now removing up to 70,000 cubic metres of sand and gravel from South Tarawa’s fragile coastline every year.

SOPAC’s sustainable development adviser, Dr Netatua Pelesikoti, says the annual removal of enough sand and gravel to fill about 30 Olympic-sized swimming pools (or 3,500 minibuses) is putting the atoll’s infrastructure and families at risk.

"Mining the coastline is now accelerating erosion in a number of areas and this is definitely increasing the vulnerability of South Tarawa to climate change-related effects such as severe coastal erosion and flooding," she says.

Pelesikoti says although householders generally mine beaches or tidal flats by hand, the total amount of material they remove is now significantly larger than any other major users such as the Ministry of Public Works and private developers.

"We surveyed 280 households from 11 different villages and we found that nearly 80% of the respondents were mining these aggregates. These householders are mostly using the material for landscaping to provide ground cover for their homes, compounds and pig pens, or for home construction and brick making," she says.

Pelesikoti says 38% of householders view beach mining as an important source of income. But only 7% relied entirely on the sales of aggregate as their only source of income. Ironically, she says, some of these aggregates are sold to support overseas development projects.

She says the annual income generated from the sale of aggregates on South Tarawa could reach nearly US$100,000.

The Government of Kiribati—like many Pacific islands governments—has been acutely aware of the problem for several years. Bans were imposed on collecting aggregates from non-designated areas while permits were issued to mine less vulnerable areas. However, a recent SOPAC survey has confirmed that the current enforcement system has had little impact on the problem.

The department of environment has limited resources to police non-designated areas and traditional ownership has made it difficult to enforce the rules.

Dr Arthur Webb, SOPAC’s coastal processes adviser, says atoll governments are now acting to address issues such as beach mining because of fears about the impacts associated with climate change.

"Increasing sea surface temperature and CO2 concentration are also likely to weaken sensitive reef environments that provide protection from ocean waves and a continuous supply of sediment for natural beach building," he says.

In most cases, the ministry of public works and utilities excavates aggregates from the lagoon tidal flats near the Betio causeway. Aggregates are loaded on to tip trucks and transported to a depot where they are processed using a mechanical crusher and sorted into various sizes. But growing demands, coupled with severe impacts of beach mining, have forced the government to look for more sustainable alternatives.

As far back as 1998, SOPAC confirmed that parts of the lagoon could be dredged to provide an environmentally safe source of construction aggregates.

Webb says a SOPAC/EU project to ‘Reduce Vulnerability in Pacific States’ recently confirmed reserves in the Vinstra Shoal would provide a much safer supply of aggregates of adequate quality for building and construction.

Based on current demand, Webb says this aggregate resource could supply Kiribati’s domestic and public construction needs for approximately 50 years.

Bathymetric mapping of the seafloor was used to develop a hydrodynamic model of the lagoon to determine any environmental effects of dredging the lagoon floor.

Although he accepts that dredging will have localised effects, Webb says the modelling demonstrated that any sediment plumes it generates would be unlikely to create widespread damage.

"An important component of such activity will be the ongoing monitoring of the lagoon environment to ensure any impacts are minimised. But it is still clear that, if properly managed, any negative effects from dredging will be far less damaging than beach mining," he says.

Based on the success of these investigations, the European Development Fund has now given in-principle support for a major project to establish a government-owned dredging company.

The EU will fund the purchase of capital equipment such as barges and dredges and provide support for the first two years of operation.

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