Ngapali Beach continues to lose one of its greatest assets, despite beach sand being unsuitable for construction and regulations banning its removal.
By HANS HULST | FRONTIER
Twenty years ago Ngapali Beach, on the Bay of Bengal in Rakhine State a short drive from Thandwe, was an unspoilt gem in the crown of Myanmar’s natural treasures.
The local population, which had access to the beach, lived mainly from the sea. Every now and then a foreigner could be spotted at one of the few hotels along the foreshore.
Times have changed. Tourism is modest but growing at Ngapali, with a limited number of mid-range and upscale hotels operating in the area. Nearly all the beachfront land has been sold and only a small strip of public beach remains. But the sand is disappearing.
Normally, the sea removes and deposits sand in an everlasting cycle. A beach will gently slope upwards, until it runs into the natural barriers of plant growth and the roots of palm trees. Sand mining at Ngapali has disturbed the natural balance. Sand depths on the beach, one of the most attractive in Southeast Asia, are up to one metre lower than last year, and the slope to the foreshore is steeper.
The removal of the sand has enabled the sea to undermine the foundations of hotel compound boundary walls and the roots of palm trees, many of which fell over this year during the monsoon. Retaining walls for beachfront terraces at the Sandoway Resort and the Merciel Retreat and Resort also collapsed. A hotel being built by the Department of Civil Aviation, a stone’s throw from Thandwe Airport, encountered the same fate. The wall around the compound fell apart.
The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism has been trying to curb the sand mining since 2004. Its most recent effort to stop the illegal use of beach sand was MoHT notification 2/15, dated January 1, 2015. It was followed by notification 1/2015 from the Thandwe General Affairs Department on January 27, which prohibited the removal of beach sand and warned of serious action against those who flouted the rules.
At the DCA hotel development near Thandwe Airport, five workers were shovelling beach sand into bags that were being carried to the site of the building work. They were laughing and clearly unaware they were breaking the law.
“We are from Mrauk Oo,” a dark-skinned boy said, resting on his shovel. “There’s no work there, so we came here to work in construction. The women get K3,500 a day to collect sand from the beach, we men get K5,000 a day.”
In Gaw village, just north of the airport, village head U Naing Naing admitted being involved in sand mining in the past. “But the last six months we have not done this anymore,” he said. “We did not get a permit from the local government.”
One reason why sand mining became an important source of income in Gaw is because the village lacks an adequate supply of ground water for farming. However, U Naing Naing said that even without sufficient farming income and sand mining he had secured K150,000,000 for the village budget.
Where did the money come from?
“I am not telling you,” U Naing Naing said with a smile that exposed betel-stained teeth.
About 200 metres from the village, tyre tracks leading to the beach were an indication that, permit or no permit, demand for beach sand remains strong. A blue Forland truck was parked on the beach, the driver fast asleep at the wheel, as two men shovelled sand into the vehicle.
The workers had no qualms explaining what they were doing. “This sand will be used to extend the main road and for bridge construction 80 kilometres south,” said Ko Wai Moe. “We can do two runs a day,” he said. “Every truckload earns K130,000. We workers get K20,000 each per truckload, and the owner of the truck receives K70,000.”
Oliver E Soe Thet, who runs the Laguna Lodge at Ngapali and is a former advisor to the Union government on Rakhine coastal issues, does not understand why construction companies are not using grey river sand, which only costs K40,000 a truckload.
“Beach sand is not appropriate for construction,” he said.
This concern was echoed in a letter sent by the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business on April 30 this year to Vice President U Nyan Tun, who chairs the National Land Resource Central Committee. Beach sand is unsuitable for building because its high salinity leads to corrosion, the MCRB said in the letter. “Furthermore, compared to other forms of sand, the round grains of beach sand are smoother from wave action, and lack the sharp edges and corners to grip the cement/concrete matrix … Use of beach sand therefore makes buildings less stable, and prone to collapse,” it said.
Sand excavated from Ngapali’s long, gently curving beach is widely used for construction projects in the area.
Mr Soe Thet said that Sittwe State Hospital was built with chlorinated sea sand. The hospital is falling apart. “The new Ngapali hospital and school will face the same fate,” he said. “It is irresponsible and dangerous.”
In its letter to U Nyan Tun, the MCRB highlighted other negative consequences of removing beach sand. One is that the degradation of Ngapali may hurt tourism, a sector that provides jobs for many Rakhine. Coastal erosion, damaged ecosystems and a reduced ability to withstand natural disasters are among the other side-effects of sand mining.
In a response to the MCRB on May 14, U Nyan Tun, a former naval commander, acknowledged the mining problem and its negative impact on the environment and said he would push for the strict enforcement of rules banning the removal of sand, sources who read the letter told Frontier.
But how much clout does the Union government have in this issue?
During a visit to Ngapali in 2013, President U Thein Sein said he wanted its natural skyline to be preserved – a suggestion possibly inspired by a ban in Bali on buildings higher than palm trees – and noted that a regulation prohibited the removal of beach sand.
Local government officials have since formally allowed sand mining on three beaches. It is not clear if they benefitted financially from their decisions, but it is difficult to imagine that they have not. Authorities on the union and local level are not operating in unison, to put it mildly.
When President U Thein Sein and Vice President Dr Sai Mauk Kham visited Ngapali during this year’s election campaign, mountains of mined beach sand at a construction site for a five-storey hotel were shrouded with blue and green plastic to keep them out of sight, said Mr Soe Thet.
It is not only people with trucks and shovels for mining beach sand who are to blame for damaging the environment, he said.
Some businessmen are resorting to drastic measures. A wetland area the size of three soccer fields near the beach in Zabegyi village, has been covered with sand. The sand was pumped over many months. It is unclear what the owner of the land, U Soe Myint, the mayor of Pyin Oo Lwin and the owner of SM and Associates, is planning to do at the site.
MCRB director Vicky Bowman believes that education is the key to solving the problem.
“We want to try and get environmental experts to come, who can show the medium and long term impacts of taking sand in other beaches, as I think the first problem is people don’t realise it’s a finite resource,” Ms Bowman said. “I would also like to get a program going with schools, but unfortunately UNESCO’s Sandwatch program seems to have run out of funding before it got here,” she said.
The bad news is that the problem is more widespread than realised. “Unfortunately, this isn’t unique to Ngapali,” said Ms Bowman. “It’s happening in Ngwe Saung and also down in Tanintharyi Region in less visible places.”
Mr Soe Thet, who has lived in Myanmar for twenty years and has seen firsthand the effect of mining the sand at Ngapali, said the government needs to act quickly. “What nature has built in thousands of years can be undone by men in just minutes. I hope the National League for Democracy and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have prepared policies to end the destruction of nature in Ngapali.”
Garbage: another bad odour
Garbage disposal was a problem in the Ngapali and Thandwe areas in the past because of irregular collection times by Thandwe City Development Committee.
An initiative by the Myanmar Chefs Association tried to address the problem by building concrete garbage bins that the TCDC could empty once a week. The first facility, outside Lin Thar village at the southern end of Ngapali Beach, was a runaway success.
In September 2013 the Ngapali hotels, united in the Myanmar Hotelier Association Rakhine, upped the ante. Each hotel donated US$100 a room – the larger hotels $150 a room – to buy two garbage collection trucks. Some of the hotels also paid a fee of $1.50 a guest to cover salary costs for 10 garbage collectors, as well as fuel and maintenance for the trucks.
A Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the TCDC to operate the trucks and collect the garbage.
Ngapali hoteliers say the trucks bought by the MHAR have disappeared. They say that the TCDC has not cleaned the garbage bins since August 2015, which is a reason for the smelly piles of rubbish along the beach road. “Even when we buy the trucks and pay for the fuel and the salaries, the TCDC will not collect garbage,” a hotel owner said on condition of anonymity. “It is ridiculous.”