Sheikh Suleiman, Kafr el-Sheikh Governorate – The clock nears 4pm. There is relative calm in the village of Sheikh Suleiman, north of the international highway in the Kafr el-Sheikh overnorate. The sound of a huge trailer weaving through thick sand dunes tears at the silence.
The driver climbs down quickly and, aided by a small tractor, collects around 40 cubic meters of sand in a matter of 20 minutes.
He looks around to make sure nobody is watching. Upon being signalled that the road was clear, he quickly returns to his truck, lights a cigarette, and speeds away.
He leaves behind him several holes in the sand dunes, which threaten to drown the adjacent villages.
This is but a small scene of what occurs daily in many villages of the Nile Delta, famous for its so-called “black sand.” The sands are created by deposits resulting from the collision of Nile water carrying silt with the water of the Mediterranean at the estuaries.
This type of sand is spread all along the coast of the Delta and Sinai. It is considered very precious, in value and function.
A 2008 study by the Nuclear Material Authority at the Ministry of Electricity and Power indicates that it is available in 11 locations. These sands begin at EDCO, north of the Beheira governorate (near Alexandria) on the Mediterranean coast and extend to Rafah on the Egyptian border with Palestine.
According to the study, the sands contain many economically lucrative minerals that are used in several industries, such as high quality ilmenite, used as pigment in paints; zircon, used in ceramics, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles; garnet, used in water filters and sandpaper; and magnetite, used in the manufacture of sponge iron and protecting oil pipelines.
They also contain the radioactive mineral monazite, a source of rare earth materials used in hi-tech electronic manufacturing. The sands are also a source of uranium.
The dunes also protects the beaches from being submerged under water.
This two-month investigation conducted by Youm7 reveals that the government does not have a clear strategy and vision for the legal exploitation of the black sands, which would be beneficial to the state.
Egypt does not benefit from a generous source of national income, which could help many industries. This is due to conflicting government authorities and the lack of laws that criminalize individual and corporate trade in the sands.
It also needs a plan to replace the mined sand from other locations in the Egyptian desert.
Against the Flood
The black sands are a natural barrier against the sea and its waves. They can protect the region from drowning in 2050, according to a warning in a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) study published in 2002.
Rising earth temperatures will lead ice caps to melt in the cold regions. This will raise the level of water in the Mediterranean by around half a meter by 2050.
The absence of natural barriers, such as the north Delta black sands, threatens to drown the area if no protective measures are taken. The impact will be hardest in the governorate of Kafr el-Sheikh, south of the Burullus lakes, Alexandria, Port Said, and Beheira.
This concern is shared by Dr. Khaled Awdeh, geology professor in Assiut University and author of an atlas on the threat of climate change on Egypt’s coastlines. He said that “the danger to this area comes from stripping the sand dunes and excavating beaches in an indiscriminate manner.”
He indicated that removing sand that has accumulated on beaches during thousands of years is a crime. It becomes more serious when sea levels are rising by around a centimeter each year, threatening to flood the entire region by 2050.
“The sand dunes, in their current situation, will not be able to resist rising sea levels by half a meter from the current level. There are visible ruptures in the dunes from Burj Burullus to the Green Island. It is estimated that there is a total of 13 such crevices, due to their extraction for use in construction,” Awdeh explained.
He stressed that the only solution would be to create an island in the region with a reinforced underwater concrete wall, to protect it from waves. This is in addition to strict measures to stop the theft of sand.
The people of al-Amayra village in Baltim, Kafr el-Sheikh experiences this first hand recently. Sea levels rose, allowing waves to flow through the holes left by the extracted sand and drown 13 out of 200 feddans (1 feddan is approximately 1 acre or 4,200 square meters).
“We woke up to the sound of the water at 3 am. The men of the village quickly began blocking the water by transporting sand from closeby. God protected us,” Saeed Amayra, a resident of the village, told us.
The Sand Gangs
The lack of protective mechanisms for the sands made them susceptible to the exploitation of organized gangs, made up of contractors, traders, and thieves. Despite the efforts of residents trying to stop them, they steal sand every day and make a huge profit.
Youm7 was able to witness such incidents and discover the magnitude of the illegal theft and transportation of the sand.
We started from the village of Sheikh Suleiman in Baltim, north of the international highway, in the governorate of Kafr el-Sheikh, which forbids the transportation of sand to protect the beaches from erosion.
This journalist followed one of the vehicles that started working in the early afternoon and continued until midnight, where the transportation of sand was at its peak.
It was not easy to find a safe location to monitor the traffic. If drivers saw anyone who did not belong there, they might change their route.
Then, the huge trailer – mentioned above – arrived in the village. People said “it was not from the area.” They knew all the tractors of their neighbors who trade with sand. They had even quarrelled with them, trying to persuade them to stop.
Tracking the vehicles was not an easy task either. Their modus operandi was very similar to drug smuggling operations. Children dotted one side of the road to alert drivers of any potential threats using a predetermined code. On the other side, stood a “monitor” who ensures that the vehicle has exited his area.
The car we were following had passed the governorate toll station paying a LE20 ($3.3) fee. This was the first indicator of official neglect from the Kafr el-Sheikh governorate.
Allowing those cars to drive through violated decision 213 issued in 2005 to stop the stealing of the sands and protect the beaches from excavation.
The second article of the regulation stated that “all areas north of the international highway shall have the required guarding and searching posts, in coordination with the Kafr el-Sheikh Directorate of Traffic, the quarries administrations in the governorate, and local [police] units in the area of the ban to stop the smuggling of sand.”
Pursuing the Smugglers
The first attempt to pursue the sand smugglers was in a taxi cab. But the trailer truck driver noticed he was being followed and managed to disappear. The next day, the same truck was in the same place collecting more sand.
This time, we managed to track it. It reached al-Zohour area in the village of Sidi Ghazi, in the Mtobes district of Kafr el-Sheikh, around 35 kilometers from Abu Suleiman. It unloaded the sand in an area called al-Shouna, which contained many different types of sand, in addition to the smuggled black sand.
Ibrahim Mohammed, a resident of Sidi Ghazi, said the only thing he knew about al-Shouna is that it is owned by the Advanced Irrigation Pipes Company which specializes in controlled irrigation systems in the area.
According to Reda Abul-Shohoud, who owns the land where the sand is deposited, he had rented it out to a private advanced irrigation company. One year ago, the company began using the transported sand to create beds for irrigation pipes.
The company is called al-Amr. One of the workers – who requested not to be identified – said the sand was from Baltim.
This was denied by al-Amr president Mohammed al-Sayed, who claimed that since the beginning of works at the advanced irrigation project in Sidi Ghazi on 24 February 2011 and until its completion on 24 February 2012, no sand from Baltim was used.
He said he had received sand from that area two and a half years ago, for a project to reclaim the Manayfa canal in Kafr el-Sheikh. He had paid between LE25 ($4.2) and LE30 ($5) per cubic meter, but did not know if it had been obtained legally or not.
Sidi Ghazi was not the only station for the theft and transport of these sands. There were trailers heading in various directions.
On the second day of the chase, another truck was getting ready to leave with stolen sand. This time from the village of Sheikh Mubarak, three kilometers from Izbat Suleiman.
For four hours, we pursued the trailer travelling at a very low speed making several rest stops. Due to the bad weather conditions and the rain, the truck was stuck and could not reach its destination.
The driver did not object to our questions. He knew we were journalists but we assured him that his name will not be published. He did not care where the sands were going, nor did he know anything about their importance. He just wanted his payment for transporting the load, a total of LE600 ($100).
He added that his loads go to the brick factories. His final destination will be a brick factory in al-Salmiya in the Foua district of Kafr el-Sheikh.
Inside the factory, its owner, S.M., said that they received the sand to manufacture the bricks from licensed quarries south of the international highway only, even though the sand was actually from restricted areas to its north. He added that the price of sand from Baltim was around LE40 ($6.7).
He added that sand merchants are allowed to sell it if it comes from land that they own.
“If the state wanted to preserve this sand, it should put in place rules and reach an agreement with landowners where the sand is located,” he added.
The factory owner said that a person purchasing coastal lands there wanted to establish a touristic project. He is removing the sand because it obstructs the construction.
But there are individuals and companies that were clearly violating the ban on the extraction of economically profitable black sand from the beaches. Kafr el-Sheikh officials are neglecting to apply the law.
It is worth noting that this type of sand is not the best to manufacture bricks.
During the 11-day pursuit period, Youm7 estimated that a total of 9,900 cubic meters of sand had been extracted.
The indiscriminate waste in the sand led the inhabitants of Sheikh Mubarak to expect an imminent catastrophe if the merchants did not stop the daily extraction.
This led some young people in the area to establish the Change Association, in coordination with the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), to protect the beach sands.
One year ago, El-Sayed Abu-Zeid, a lawyer from the village and a member of the association, tried to obstruct the transportation by lodging a complaint with SCAF, the council of ministers, and the environment ministry against several people from the area.
The complaint was against those who are aiding with operations that steal and transport the sands. “The police just warned those accused of the theft that they will be punished if they do it again,” Abu-Zeid added.
So he joined one of the popular committees formed in the village to stop the theft of the sand. They clashed with drivers and thugs. Several people from the village were injured.
Fadi Shmeis, vice president of the Baltim city summer resort administration, is in charge of stopping the gangs from stealing the sand. He said that his administration was successful in stopping the excavation within the resort’s perimeter, but could not control what happens outside.
Shmeis showed us some of his correspondences with the environment ministry, the cabinet, and SCAF. He said he never received a reply or saw any action from them.
The big surprise came when he told us that the city administration itself used some of this sand to reclaim the corniche.
He said the sand was a daily nuisance because it would be blown by the wind covering the roads. Sand removal costs the state a lot of money.
So it seems that the administration itself was breaking the law it was entrusted to uphold.
Shmeis refused to see it as such. He said they were “trying to solve an issue that causes daily problems on the roads.”
Wealth and Conflicting Authority
According to a feasibility study about the extraction of industrial minerals from the black sands, conducted by the Nuclear Materials Authority on the Baltim and Burullus areas in 2008, the initial investment for such a project will be approximately $125 million, around LE750 at current prices.
Hamdi Saif al-Nasr, former head of the Nuclear Materials Authority, said that the total yearly income from the project would be LE165 ($27.5) million per year, around LE3 billion ($500 million) during the 20-year lifespan of the project.
This is in addition to amounts obtained by the state from selling the economically lucrative minerals. These minerals can also be used by the state in its planned nuclear program. There are also the lands that will be acquired by the state following the sand extraction.
Responsibility about protecting these sands from theft lies with three different governmental authorities: The Nuclear Materials Authority, The Geological Survey Authority, and the governorates that have the sand.
Each side blames the other. This could be due to the lack of a law or legislation that could clearly resolve the conflict.
The Nuclear Materials Authority is part of the Ministry of Electricity and Energy. It has the legal jurisdiction over any piece of land that contains radioactive materials. This applies to the black sands that contain the monazite mineral, from which uranium is extracted.
The authority established two different centers to separate the minerals found in the black sands. One of them is in Rashid in the Beheira governorate, and the second is in Kafr el-Sheikh, which has its own Quarries Authority.
The authority also prepared two feasibility studies for an investment project to separate the contents of the black sands.
The second is the Geological Survey Authority in the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Wealth. It also conducted several studies in the past on the importance of the black sands. The mines and quarries act gives it the authority to protect the sands.
The third is the local governorates. The sand is on their land and they are responsible for protecting them.
The three sides disagree about who owns the sand and who can it, without paying attention to protecting the sand.This confuses the authorities and the feasibility studies for exploiting the sands become unfeasible.
This three-way conflict was obvious in the replies to the questions of Youm7 about which institution has failed to protect the sands and the resulting economic waste.
Dr. Abdul-Aal Hassan, vice president of The Geological Survey Authority, held that the authority charged with the separation of black sand minerals project was the geological authority.
According to Hassan, the only regulations that can protect the black sands from the current theft were those of the Geological Survey Authority, according to article 43 of the 1956 quarries act.
The article states: “Extracting or attempting to extract particular materials from mines or quarries without a permit, is considered a crime of theft or attempted theft and punishable by confiscating tools and machines.”
In the execution part, the law gives authority to inspectors and engineers in the mines and quarries authority, their assistants and technical employees, employees of companies under the law #25 of 1954, and all those whose authority include legal arrest to pursue any violations of the law, related decisions, book-keeping, and documentation.
Therefore, the authority is legally sanctioned to protect the sands from organized theft. But this is not happening since the authority is not actually observing its supervisory role.
Dr. Atef Dardir, former president of the Geological Survey Authority, said that the project was given to a company owned by a Greek investor. It was nationalized after the July 1952 revolution and is now the property of the state, which conducts the separation operations and earns profit from them.
The company began to stumble, so the project was referred to the Nuclear Authority in 1958. The Geological Authority continued doing research, in coordination with the former.
In the early 1990s, they presented a detailed study on exploiting minerals separated from the sands, in an investment project that would benefit the state. Although the study alone cost LE4 million ($667,000), the state did not use it, going for the study conducted with the Nuclear Materials Authority.
While the nuclear authority defended its unique right to conduct sand separation operations, its governing law gives it the right of exploitation of nuclear materials, but not their protection. According to geologist Mohammed Jaber, assistant manager of the black sand separation project at the Nuclear Materials Authority, what is happening to the sand dunes in Baltim and Burullus is theft of Egyptian national wealth.
The head of that authority, Dr. Mohsen Mohammed Ali, insisted that their role was merely scientific. They separate the minerals from the sand in the Rashid area and sell them to local manufacturers. The profit goes towards funding research in the authority. The do not export the minerals to foreign countries.
Mohammed Ibrahim Amer, member of the dissolved people’s assembly from the second Baltim district in the Kafr el-Sheikh governorate, told us that he had sent an urgent message to SCAF. They replied by saying they were busy with the martyrs and wounded of the January 25 revolution.
Conflict of interest between government institutions can only be solved through a unified agency that includes representatives of responsible authorities: the Nuclear Materials, Geological Survey, and the governorates where the sand is located.
The agency should issue a unified law to regulate its work, maybe this could help protect Egypt’s economic wealth.
The question that remains is: Will the government of Hesham Qandil succeed in protecting Egypt’s natural wealth?
This investigative report was supervised by Amr Kaaki from the International Center for Journalists, with the participation of ARIJ – Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism