Residents in local villages face a constant battle against the waves of sand

Along the coastline of Brazil's small Piaui state, entire villages along its remote coastline, rarely visited by outsiders, are being completely buried in mountains of sand encroaching inland from the sea.

It is nearly impossible to estimate the exact number of homes buried, since many are poor villages built without official title to land and no traceable addresses, however locals estimate hundreds of homes could be completely submerged.

Piaui is a small state, comprising less than two per cent of the population of Brazil, and the poorest in the country, according to government statistics.

The people most affected by the incoming sand dunes are fishermen who live and work along the state's coastline.

Deforestation

The sand comes inland in such quantities
it buries everything in its path
Al Jazeera visited one area where environmental officials say an entire village of 30 homes is buried. There were no signs that a village once existed – it is completely covered.

The cause of the sand incursion can be traced back to the Parnaiba River which runs through the state.

Deforestation and development along the banks of the 1,000-kilometre river is dumping massive amounts of loose sand into the river.

The river then carries the sand to the Atlantic ocean, but waves force all the sand back to shore where it builds up in huge quantities.

Strong incoming winds then push the sand inland in such quantities it buries anything in its path.

"Research has shown this particular area of the Brazilian coast receives the strongest winds, so those winds pushing the sand inland complicate an already difficult problem," Fernando Antonio Lopes Gomes of IBAMA, the enforcement division of the Brazilian Ministry of Environment based in the city of Parnaiba, told Al Jazeera.

Abandoned wrecks

The encroaching sand banks are massive – in one area visited by Al Jazeera they are as tall as a five-storey building - and sweeping inland at a rate of one metre per month, according to Luiz Roberto dal Poggetto, an oceanographer based in the area.

In other villages along the coast, residents are in a constant battle to save their homes from invasion, shovelling sand from their house throughout the year.

Hundreds of homes just along the Piaui coastline have sand reaching halfway up the house, in some cases almost covering the roof.

Residents often dig pathways to reach their front door. When the sand gets heavy enough, it often collapses the walls – leaving an abandoned wreck.

Fighting the sand

will not let the sand win - me and my family have nowhere else to go

The Brazilian government is trying to do what it can to help – assisting some residents to relocate inland.

In the small fishing municipality of Ilha Grande, where the total population is a few hundred, 73 homes have been relocated inland, according to officials.

Residents who refuse to relocate try to build makeshift walls to deter the incoming sand, but it is often a futile effort.

In the small municipality named Luis Correia, homeowner Pedro Andrade was shovelling sand that totally engulfed the entire back part of his home, nearly reaching the roof.

"I will not let the sand win," Andrade told Al Jazeera. "Me and my family have nowhere else to go. So I stay and fight this sand."

Andrade says once he clears the sand, it only takes another four months before it is reached his roof again. He primarily focuses his energies in keep his main entrance area clear so he can enter his home.

The local cemetery in one village was recently totally covered in sand. Officials cleared it and built a reinforced retaining wall to keep sand out, but now the sand is just centimetres from overtaking the wall again.

Lethal side effects

Global warming is closely linked to changes in the ocean, and as long as there is a change in the temperature of the ocean the coastlines will be affected

When visiting the Parnaiba River by boat, it is easy to see that so much sand is being dumped into the river that in areas in the middle where it was once five to seven metres deep, it is now just 30 centimetres deep – barely coming up to a person's knees.

Eventually, some channels in the river could be totally clogged by sand, which would have serious implications for the fisherman who rely on the river for their livelihoods.

The problem with encroaching sand banks is spreading beyond the state of Piaui to neighbouring Ceara and Maranhao states, where even more villages are buried or fighting to stave off the sand.

In Ceara, state officials have to constantly move power pole lines because they are being completely covered.

And there are side effects as well; the largest lake in the area, Lagoa do Portinho, is drying up and scientist think it is due to global warming.

Complicating the situation is the incoming sand, which is threatening to totally cover the lake.

"Global warming is closely linked to changes in the ocean, and as long as there is a change in the temperature of the ocean the coastlines will be effected," said dal Poggetto.

"For instance, here in the last 20 years, we haven't had the same amount of rain as we had in the 1970s – it's decreased."

Source: Al Jazeera