Sand mining, we’ve all heard about it, somewhere in the newspapers, on media channels, maybe in a documentary. But, what is it? Why are police and administrative officers, activists, journalists, even common people being attacked, shot, burnt, and crushed to death around this issue? And the most pertinent question, what is the impact of sand mining on us and our environment?
Sand: An essential service provider to our economy and ecosystems
Just like water sand is an invaluable resource and just like water it seems there’s plenty of it, only there isn’t!
In reality, we are running out of it. So much so that the countries having exploited their sandbeds, are now importing sand from other countries. Our annual global sand consumption is estimated at 40-50 billion tonnes. This exceeds the natural replenishment rate of sand by 100%.
But, aren’t the deserts a vast ocean of sand? Yes, they are and like the salty ocean water , desert sand rounded by winds lacks adherent properties that bring stability to a structure and is unfit for use.
Our stock of sand is dug from open pits and quarries on land and dredged from rivers, coasts, and offshore sandbeds. Marine sand is corrosive, requires to be salt free before further use, river sand is the best resort. Even though river sand mining accounts for 10-15% percent of the total(rest is from terrestrial sources), it has raised alarm due to its negative socio-ecological impacts.
As per reports by UNEP, sand and gravel, industrially known as aggregates are the most extracted and traded by volume commodity after water.
The global civilization stands on the grains of sand, its low cost, ease of acquisition, and versatility makes it indispensable for construction of buildings and the roads that connect them, land reclamation, petroleum fracking, production of electronics, paints, cosmetics, solar cells and glass.
Yet ,there’s no global database for monitoring, tracking, and tracing the production and consumption of sand; No global treaty governing the extraction, trade and use of sand. The construction industry uses approximately half of the total sand produced and its share continues to increase with the urbanisation boom. However, the estimates are indirectly determined through cement manufacturing ( for each tonne of cement, six to seven times more sand and gravel are required).
The Global Gluttons of Sand
China, the fourth largest country in terms of land has ravaged its riverbeds for its building boom , exploiting the Poyang lake , once a thriving Ramsar site is now the world’s largest sand mine as well!Not only that, it has added many square miles of land to its coasts. Singapore, the biggest importer of sand has increased its landmass by 23% in the past four decades , reclaiming its land from sea using sand from neighbouring countries, like Indonesia where 24 islands have been lost to sand extraction.
Dubai‘s architectural wonders, be it the Burj Khalifa that is reportedly constructed from sand imported from Australia, or artificial Palm Jumeirah islands, or the world islands project have exhausted all of its marine sand resources!
Sand sorting tower. Image by : Solipsist
India’s Sand and its Sand Mafia
India is the second largest sand mining country in the world. Along with China, it accounts for over two-thirds of global cement production.
Lack of stringent regulations and soaring demands of sand over all these years have rendered India’s riverbeds, lakes, and coastlines vulnerable to extraction impacts.
Rampant sand extraction often illegal goes unchecked, partially due to fear , partially due to collusion of officials, political parties, influential lobbies in this nexus of illegal mining all of which aids the flourishing Sand Mafia,known by all and named by none.
Sand mining through suction pumps. Image By: Sumaira Abdulali
Sand wars of these Mafias have spared no one, from officers and journalists to local labourers, hundreds have been murdered in cold blood.
India and its Policies on Sand Mining
Before 2016, directives in this regard were only issued by the courts or NGT .It was after that the guidelines for sustainable sand mining management, 2016 were brought, followed by a Sand Mining framework of 2018.
But, this couldn’t put a brake on illegal mining of sand and Enforcement and Monitoring of sand mining guidelines equipped with aerial surveys, nighttime drone surveillance, river audits, public disclosure of details , online auctions , and riverbed replenishment studies were brought in 2020.
It is a model document in compliance with NGT orders over all these years. However , it would be myopic to call this legislation successful when district survey reports are pending , sand is still a minor mineral and all powers pertaining to its use lies in the hands of the state , and there’s data deficiency on numbers of illegal activities and impact of sand mining cases in the country.
Ground realities: Socio-ecological Menace and impact of sand Mining
The malaise of mining sand illegally is countrywide, no state is exempt .
In Morena, the sand mafia operates in impunity, stripping tonnes of sand everyday from river Chambal.It is here that reports of attacks on officers , journalists and activists who impose order have become a norm.
The mud of mining has claimed several lives here including Gharials.
Gharials that are critically endangered have diminished over the years from the Chambal sanctuary, experts point to loss of nesting and basking habitats destroyed by Sand mining. But this isn’t the only instance for impact of sand mining on biodiversity.
Loss of key species of freshwater turtles , Gangetic dolphins is also a result of prevalent sand mining in river Ganga, from the foothills in Uttarakhand to the plains of Uttar Pradesh.
The most notorious case is of the Yamuna-Hindon rivers in Greater Noida; Mined mindlessly to support the burgeoning real estate, these rivers have been reduced to a trickle in the soil. Sand pits large enough to play cricket litter the river banks, the ground water table has dropped and rivers have changed their course causing farmers to lose their lands and live under the threat of flooding.
The creeks and coastal districts of Maharashtra are hotbeds of sand mining, almost 40% of all reported cases on illegal sand mining are from the state!
The areas of Thane and Palghar are most affected, creeks are now prone to saltwater intrusion altering the habitat of the area as erosion of beaches continue;
These creeks however are mined manually often risking the worker’s safety who dive 50 feet deep upto 200 times a day to earn some money , without safety gear. Their deaths often go unreported, as they drown for sand that builds our home.
While the rivers seem to replenish its sand every year, an alarming data point states that, 90% sediments and gravel delivery in rivers of Asia have been lost to reservoirs or are being mined.
Sand mining in Vembanad Lake in kerala. Image – Challiyan (Dr. Vipin Challiyil)
Vembanad lake catchment due to unhindered dredging loses 12 million tonnes of sand annually lowering the riverbed upto 15 centimetres per year.
Mining deepens the river channels, sandbeds are lowered, so are the natural aquifers increasing water shortage in the areas and their proneness to drought.
Natural defences of the mainland are lost as reduced deposits in river deltas increases their risk of coastal erosion and storm surges.
Kerala’s Alappad fishing village is reeling under the same threat, sand mining has reduced their land to a narrow strip between the sea and the backwaters. They fear losing their land and livelihood.
This not only endangers the ecosystem but also the way of life of communities. Similarly, the disappearing Mekong delta in Vietnam has added to the environmental refugees in the world.
It is clear that incessant sand mining is not just eroding river banks and coastlines but also fragmenting habitats, endangering species, water and food security, and livelihood; impacting water tables , fisheries , agriculture by increasing risk of both floods and drought.
Moreover, loss of beaches impacts tourism and mining of sand destabilizes infrastructure ; bridges, embankments, even buildings risk collapse.
Where do we go from here?
While the situation is bleak, it isn’t hopeless for the willing , the losses can be reduced and to some extent reversed if only we let our rivers to replenish their sediments and put a cap on how much we extract.
Crackdown on Mafias, transparency and accountability and global coordination in governance are the way to go!
The acronym of 4Rs could probably be the solution we seek.
Reducing our consumption of sand by rethinking our construction and design system,question is the construction necessary?
Reuse our construction waste by developing a recycling infrastructure to build a circular economy for concrete.
Moreover, we can refuse using sand by shifting to alternates of sand that range from recycled glass and plastic to rice husks and palm oil shells.
Policy interventions in the market incentivising the use and investing in research for sand alternates can go a long way!
The perils to this change are mostly from lack of public awareness and poor governance around the issue.
We as stakeholders of the resource should shoulder the responsibility to save our sand and reduce the impact of sand mining before the land beneath our feet disappears.