Humanosity says….Part of our Special Report on the devastating consequences of sand mining, this article details the scale of the crisis facing countries in Asia….
It seems that the illegal mining of sand from Asia’s rivers has become so profitable that reporting on this has become one of the most dangerous stories that a journalist can cover. In India alone three journalists have been killed in the last couple of years by the sand mining mafias. A fourth in Tamil Nadu has been repeatedly threatened by someone claiming to represent a local politician.
The reason why is that sand is a crucial construction material, so crucial that it has become one of the most precious commodities in the world. Countries or regions experiencing economic growth are also experiencing construction booms. All that concrete require copious amounts of sand and it has to be the right type of sand.
Desert sand is too smooth, beach sand and sand from the sea contain salt which needs to be washed out to prevent corrosion on the steel reinforcing beams and that costs money. That leaves sand dredged from rivers. The grains have the right shape and there’s no need to incur the extra cost of washing the sand.
The investigation by thethirdpole.net has details from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Vietnam and sadly the details for each country are much the same. In nearly every case sand mining mafias seem to be working with local politicians or these politicians are repeatedly turning a blind eye to the mafias’ activities.
In many cases the problem has been known about for decades but still nothing is being done, even when local communities start to complain.
A case study in Nepal, done by Tribhuvan University in 2007 said that about 40% of the total demand for sand in the Kathmandu valley was met through illegal riverbed mining. As the activities are illegal, it was hard to quantify the amount of sand being extracted, the authors of the study pointed out.
The Ecological Impact
Most of the riverbed extraction destroys the vegetative cover of the aquatic environment and reduce the nutrient inputs into the river so its severely affects aquatic life,” said Subodh Sharma, professor at the department of environmental sciences and engineering in Kathmandu University.
Apart from the damage to aquatic life, in many cases the dredging of sand from riverbeds leads to significant riverbank erosion which can lead to bridges collapsing. As many of the rivers in the region have seen dams constructed, the worries are that the combined effects are increasing the problem.
The China Factor
To make matters worse, China has begun to enforce stricter control of sand mining. This has led to greater demand for sand exports from the region, with countries like Vietnam starting to export vast quantities of sand to satisfy China’s huge construction boom.
Dredging has taken place for years along the Mekong, but the industrial scale is relatively new. On the Lower Mekong between Laos and Vietnam, 50 million tonnes of sand were extracted in 2011 alone, WWF estimates – much more than the river produces in a year.
The situation is only going to get worse as the region continues it’s rapid economic growth, yet there are signs of hope. Some countries like Sri Lanka have begun to implement a licence scheme for extraction that properly accounts for the potential ecological damage and more countries need to follow suit. Also in many cases the local politicians that give cover to the mafias are simply not aware of the damage being done. Rather than go for prohibition, which would probably make the situation worse, campaigns to encourage greater awareness could make a dramatic qualitative difference to the problem.
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