Rivers of Gold: South Asia’s Sand Mining Crisis
Sand mining is the world’s largest extractive industry, besides water. The world consumes about 50 billion tonnes of sand annually, and it accounts for 85 per cent of mined material by weight. India’s rapid urbanisation and growing megacities have fuelled a massive domestic sand mining industry. Local contractors, funded by unscrupulous construction companies, dredge rivers, mine beaches and dig open pits, filling tens of thousands of truckloads a day. But the world’s appetite for sand has come at both a social and environmental cost. For India, and other South Asian states, this cost has been devastating.
Although it is often overlooked, understudied and largely taken for granted, sand has largely built the modern world. It is a key ingredient in concrete, a component in mobile phones, and a useful manufacturing tool valued for its abrasiveness. It is also critical to the land reclamation megaprojects of states such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. However, the smoothness of wind-worn desert sand renders it unusable for construction, leaving river or coastal sand the preferred choice.
Despite its prevalence, sand mining remains chronically under-regulated in South Asia and the consequences have been catastrophic. Habitat destruction, such as for India’s gharial, a fish-eating crocodile, is perhaps the most obvious. Nesting sites in rivers are inevitably destroyed, while land clearing is required for open pits. Dropping water tables encourage salinisation, impacting agriculture and drinking water at a time of increasing droughts and water scarcity. Increased turbidity from the disturbance of sediment blocks sunlight, reducing oxygen levels and killing fish.
Fishermen near Mumbai on India’s west coast are turning to sand mining after dredgers destroyed their local catchments, leaving them no option but to join the industry which ended their former livelihoods. However, the threat to human settlements has also been more existential than purely economic. The removal of sand from river beds can alter a river’s course and accelerate erosion along its banks. Entire villages in Kerala have disappeared, alongside fish and forests, as farmland on now-unstable riverbanks has collapsed. In coastal environments, entire beaches can be removed as part of sand mining operations. In many cases, existing development has already compromised dune systems which replenish beaches, leaving both the environment and human settlement vulnerable to flooding from increasingly volatile storm systems.
These issues are not limited to India. Sand mining also provides opportunities to extract valuable resources including ilmenite, heavily impacting local communities, such as on Mannar Island in Sri Lanka. In Bangladesh, river erosion from sand mining is destroying ancestral farmlands, fuelled by a lack of regulatory enforcement. Similar cases are evident globally, notably in China and the Mekong River in Southeast Asia.
The underregulation of sand mining has contributed significantly to these issues and corruption in the industry is rife, fuelled by relatively low operating costs and a lack of enforcement. By some estimates, the majority of Indian sand mining is illegal, encouraged by heavy market demand and construction companies willing to look the other way. The scale of the sand black market is unclear, though potentially billions of dollars worth of illegal sand mining is believed to occur in the state of Tamil Nadu alone.
‘Sand mafias’ have been the result — organised crime groups that illegally run sand mining operations for huge profits, at the cost of local people and environments. Between January 2019 and November 2020, at least 193 people were killed as a result of illegal sand mining, likely a gross underestimate. Some were the result of accidental drownings in unsafe sand pits, though many were journalists, policemen, campaigners or public officials who attempted to interfere with illegal operations. Similar stories have played out in Sri Lanka, where a journalist was beaten in October for reporting on illegal sand mining. The violence has led to calls for a ‘blood sand’ campaign, similar to that against blood diamonds, to better track sand extraction and crack down on illegal operations that endanger, or kill, those involved.
The sand mining industry occupies a nexus between politics and industry that makes corruption within it difficult to dislodge. Profits are so large that political parties rely on the material revenue, contributing to poor enforcement of existing regulations in rural areas. Despite the ostensible banning of unlicensed sand mining, it continues with impunity. New guidelines from India’s environment ministry acknowledge the failure of guidelines released in 2016, though real change is yet to be seen.
Without better management, the global supplies of usable sand will continue to dwindle. Solving the world’s sand crisis will require a rethink of manufacturing processes and wasteful usage, combined with emerging technologies that may eventually replace the use of sand in concrete. More effective systemic change, however, will require addressing the inequalities and corruption that have led to such exploitation. If not, the scarcity of one of Earth’s seemingly most inexhaustible resources will quickly become apparent.
Samuel Garrett is the Young Diplomats Society’s Regional Correspondent for South and Central Asia, and a student of Arabic and International Relations at the University of Sydney.