Grain Drain: Illegal Sand Mining Is Destroying Rivers, Lives And Livelihoods

Illegal sand mining is starving the world's beaches of sand, ruining rivers, and endangering biodiversity.

There was tension in the air. People were wary about what was going to happen the next day. You couldn’t predict if the news would result in widespread chaos or if it would simply blow over like a fast wind. Just to be safe though, people prepared for the former. They circulated Whatsapp messages to all their near and dear ones to be careful, to avoid certain places, to leave vehicles with registration numbers from the neighbouring state at home, to be careful with the language they used in public. The Supreme Court Announcement finally arrived. It brought joy and glory to some and anguish to others. But now that the judgement holds sway for the next 15 years, people have moved on with their lives. River Kaveri or Cauvery, as some prefer to call her, is once again out of the limelight.

  A sand quarry stretches along the banks of the River Cauvery in Karur, Tamil Nadu. Image: Wikimedia/  CC BY-SA

A sand quarry stretches along the banks of the River Cauvery in Karur, Tamil Nadu. Image: Wikimedia/ CC BY-SA

She is not the only river that faces this on-again, off-again relationship with our natural world that the media seems to have perpetuated. In fact, the Ganga, the Brahmaputra, Yamuna, Narmada, Savitri, Sutlej and many others have shared the spotlight at one time or another and are then conveniently forgotten. We were taught at school that rivers were the cradles of civilization. This might come as no surprise to you, but our civilization is becoming the leading cause of the death and destruction of the rivers themselves. Not only are we allowing polluting industries to blatantly dump their untreated waste products in the rivers, but we are also extracting from rivers more than they are capable of sustaining in the long-term.

  Sand mining is ruining coastlines, riverbanks, and other important ecosystems around the world, especially in the developing world where government oversight gives rise to illicit mining and black markets.  Source

Sand mining is ruining coastlines, riverbanks, and other important ecosystems around the world, especially in the developing world where government oversight gives rise to illicit mining and black markets. Source

Water and sand are two precious elements that make up the river and allow all lifeforms to flourish. They are two sides of a coin. Without one, it is hard for the other to exist and to let life thrive. Yes, there is plenty of sand in deserts without water. But when was the last time the desert was called the cradle of civilization? Sand is fundamental to river ecosystems. It slows down the water and allows it to seep into the ground, filling up the water table that feeds our agriculture and our thirsty cities. Sand acts as the substrate for microorganisms that feed the fish. This where the fish spawn and aquatic vegetation grows. This is the place where creatures as diverse as crabs, otters, turtles and gharials seek refuge and sustenance. But we are extracting river sand at unsustainable rates to build our rapidly growing cities.

  Sand, a seemingly infinite resource, is an essential ingredient in cement and concrete, making it the foundation of cities worldwide. Image: swamysk/  CC-BY-NC-ND

Sand, a seemingly infinite resource, is an essential ingredient in cement and concrete, making it the foundation of cities worldwide. Image: swamysk/ CC-BY-NC-ND

There are many knock-on effects of this action. In extreme cases, rivers dry up completely especially in the fierce summer months as we have seen in the southern states of India. In other cases, river banks cave in, causing channel erosion. Water tables fall. It intensifies pollution. In some cases, it causes saline intrusion as sea water enters rivers. Agriculture and fisheries are affected. As we build more and more hydropower dams over rivers to meet our growing energy demand, we compound matters and exacerbate coastal erosion as the sediment gets blocked behind dams and does not reach the beaches that require constant replenishment. As city dwellers, this is not something we often think about.

We usually think about sand only when we want to choose a holiday destination. It may not be common knowledge that there are different kinds of sand and not every kind can be used as a resource.  But it is important to recognise that sand is a part of our everyday life in some form or shape. Besides facilitating the food we eat and the drinks we drink, sand is what makes our modern lives possible. It is used directly to make all the buildings and bridges, roads and parking lots we see around us. It is also used in all glass products whether they are the umpteen glass bottles we use at home or the slick glass facades of our corporate offices. Minerals extracted from sand are used in products we use every single day - toothpastes, paper, paints, plastics, smart phones and more. Sand is also used indirectly to manufacture many mass-produced metal items ranging from tiny wrist watch cases to enormous engines and locomotive carriages in an industrial process called sand casting. As a global society, we are only now beginning to sit up and take notice of the growing sand crisis across the world. There is a huge mismatch between demand and supply. There are many unanswered questions. But there are some things we know for certain.

  Sand being deposited as part of a beach nourishment project in Gold Coast, Australia. Image: Steve Austin/  CC BY-SA

Sand being deposited as part of a beach nourishment project in Gold Coast, Australia. Image: Steve Austin/ CC BY-SA

Scientists say that sand and gravel are the most extracted group of materials in the world, even more than fossil fuels or biomass. But as the late Prof Welland says in the award-winning documentary Sand Wars, sand is not a sustainable resource. We can use up reserves in decades but sand reserves take several hundred years to form, if not millions. We are beginning to see huge socio-economic, environmental and even geo-political impacts of indiscriminate sand mining across the world.

 

Illegal sand extraction is the third biggest crime in the world just after counterfeiting and drug trafficking.

 

All along the Indian coast, beaches are beginning to disappear as this short documentary made by the famous filmmaker and conservationist Shekar Dattatri illustrates. There are many examples of how biodiversity is being impacted: illegal sand mining is pushing critically endangered species such as gharials closer to extinction as the last remaining habitats are wantonly destroyed in our quest for sand for the construction industry. It also threatens one of the two known Indian winter habitats of black-necked cranes that fly in from Tibet at the end of every year.

Sand has become a very valuable commodity and it is shocking that people are getting killed over it. As you might have read from numerous newspaper reports, India’s $120 billion building boom is in fact fuelled in part by several dangerous sand mafia right across the country. Here is another documentary by ABC News Australia about the sand mafia in India that is well worth watching. There are tough challenges ahead for India. As the country with the 3rd biggest construction industry after the U.S and China, demand for sand is fierce. But illegal sand mining appears to be emerging as a global problem, too.

  Any building that needs concrete needs sand

Any building that needs concrete needs sand

Recent research has found that illegal sand extraction is the third biggest crime in the world just after counterfeiting and drug trafficking. Today more than half the world’s population lives in cities and by 2050, this number is projected to increase to 66 percent. The demand for sand is only going to get worse. It is time we change the way we treat this resource.

As important as it is to create awareness about the problems associated with sand mining, it is even more important to start talking about solutions. Policy makers are beginning to sit up and take notice of the problem. In 2016, the Ministry of Environment issued guidelines for sustainable sand extraction. Industries too are beginning to find alternative materials due to skyrocketing prices. There are also many organisations actively working on creating awareness about this issue. Sumaira Abdulali from Awaaz Foundation in Mumbai has been a pioneering voice in the field. She filed the first Public Interest Litigation in the country against illegal sand mining in 2006 and was instrumental in ensuring that sand mining was added to the ‘New & Emerging Issues’ at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2013. This treaty is important because it is an international treaty signed by 193 states and is aimed at sustaining the diversity of the planet. On the Awaaz website, you can also find alternatives to sand proposed by Dr Shyam Asolekar from IIT Bombay. There are other organisations, too, doing some phenomenal work on the topic. For example, SANDRP (South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People) have compiled detailed reports on river sand mining in India for three years in a row. Considering how much our lifestyles depend upon sand, there is a dire need to create a lot more awareness and discussion about this topic. As we approach World Water Day on Mar 22nd, let’s each one teach one about how important sand is to our daily lives.

The author is currently hosting a crowdfunding campaign for Sand Stories, her book about the global sand crisis, focusing on immediate and long-term solutions. The higher the number of pre-orders, the bigger the publisher the book will attract. Consider supporting her project here.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons/ Sumaira Abdulali

Kiran is the Founder and Chief Storyteller of Sand Stories, a platform dedicated to creating awareness about the little known global environmental crisis of sand mining. Kiran is currently hosting a crowdfunding campaign for a book of the same name.