Dangerous downside of filling Spanish beaches with Sahara sand

by Lorraine Williamson
Sahara sand

For decades, sand has been transported from Western Sahara to the Canary Islands, among others, to supplement or make beaches more attractive. Yet thistradition‘ has a dangerous downside for both the desert and the destinations. 

Artificially moving sand from Western Sahara to the Canary Islands can have harmful ecological consequences. These effects are noticeable both in the Western Sahara, where the sand is extracted, and at the destination. 

Sand Sahara not inexhaustible and not renewable 

And destination in this case is meant the beaches of the Canary Islands. The association ACAPS, which fights for natural resources, warns that the impression is that sand is an inexhaustible resource, as seems to be in the Sahara. Still, according to the spokesperson, this is a misconception because sand is a non-renewable resource. Extracting so much sand disrupts the natural dynamics of deserts such as the Sahara. 

Foreign sand can have serious consequences at destination 

The UN report ’10 strategic recommendations to avoid a crisis’ also points out the potential danger of shipping so much sand. This is because it can cause the introduction of invasive alien species into the new ecosystem. For example, the new sand can cause more erosion. This, in turn,  means that more and more sand has to be added more often. 

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What is yellow desert sand used for? 

The sand is mainly used in the Canary Islands to make cement and to replenish beaches. The yellow sand from the Sahara is also increasingly being used to get the typically black beaches in the same color as on the rest of the Canary Islands. 

La Gomera, la Palma, and El Hierro naturally have mostly black beaches. Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, and Gran Canaria have predominantly yellow sand, although some of this has been artificially created to make them more attractive to tourists. One of the more famous examples of this is the beach Las Teresitas in Tenerife. In 1988, 1999, and 2014, this beach was previously supplemented with sand from the western Sahara. 

Not only the Canary Islands receive Sahara sand 

However, the desert sand from the western Sahara does not only end up on the beaches of the Canary Islands. According to the ACAPS association, sand is also transported to the Portuguese island of Madeira and Mallorca. On the latter island, the sand has been used for the construction of a golf course because environmental authorities did not allow this sand to be used to replenish the existing beaches. 

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