The world is extracting sand faster than it can replenish it

  • Led by China and India, countries across the world are extracting sand at unsustainable levels far exceeding the replenishment rates, as per a report by the United Nations Environment.
  • The report cautioned that this unsustainable extraction could lead to major social and environmental implications and has called for immediate attention and effective action to manage this critical resource.
  • In India, sand mining is a controversial issue and there are many ongoing legal cases across the country.

Led by China and India, the world is mining sand at unsustainable levels exceeding the replenishment rate and that can have far-reaching social and environmental implications, reveals a new report by the United Nations Environment.

The report ‘Sand and Sustainability: Finding new solutions for environmental governance of global sand resources’ stressed that the global demand for sand and gravel stands at 40-50 billion tonnes per year, which could increase to 60 billion tonnes per year by 2030. It emphasised that unsustainable extraction from rivers has led to pollution, flooding, lowering of water aquifers and worsening drought occurrence.

“The scale of the challenge inherent in sand and gravel extraction makes it one of the major sustainability challenges of the 21st century. These materials are one of the largest resources extracted and traded by volume, yet it is one of the least regulated activities in many regions. For one of the most traded commodities on the planet, there is very low general awareness about widespread extraction impacts. Rivers, river deltas and coastlines are eroding, sand mafias are thriving and demand continues to grow,” said the report released by UN Environment last month.

Read Mongabay-India’s article from Patna on the impact of sand mining: Ganga is shifting away from Patna.

It also highlighted that the demand for sand has increased three-fold over the last decades, driven by shifting consumption patterns, growing populations, increasing urbanisation and rapid infrastructure development.

“Unlike other major environmental issues like air pollution, sand mining has not got the attention it deserves. Unsustainable sand mining has also severely impacted the flow of rivers across India. Removal of sand would also lead to an increase in water pollution and impact biodiversity,” Noida-based environmentalist Vikrant Tongad told Mongabay-India.  

The key message of the report is that unsustainable sand mining and consumption could result in a series of impacts disturbing every sphere of human lives.

The report said that many sand extraction operations in emerging and developing economies are “not in line with extractives and environmental management regulations”, resulting in social and environmental impacts in countries like India, China, and in other locations across Asia, Africa and South America.

“China and India head the list of critical hotspots for sand extraction impacts in rivers, lakes and on coastlines, most likely because these countries also lead globally on infrastructure and construction. Other countries touched by regional and national construction booms exhibit similar trends,” said the report.

For example, as per the U.N. report, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia are the legal and illegal sources of aggregate materials for regional economic corridor development and land reclamation projects in Southeast Asia.

“These cases and others demonstrate how uncontrolled extraction comes at the expense of other economic sectors, local livelihoods and biodiversity. Safety, livelihoods and other impacts can result from the widespread environmental change wrought by removing significant amounts of material from dynamic environments like rivers and coasts. Aggregate extraction in rivers has led to pollution, instability of river banks leading to increased flood frequency and intensity, lowering of water aquifers exacerbating drought occurrence and severity,” it said.

“Damming and extraction has reduced sediment delivery from rivers to many coastal areas, leading to reduced deposits in river deltas and accelerated beach erosion. Tourism is affected by the loss of key species and beach erosion, while both freshwater and marine fishing — both traditional and commercial — has been shown to be affected through destruction of benthic fauna that accompanies dredging activities,” the report explained.

Read our on-ground report on sand mining in south Kerala beaches: Villages vanish in this coastal district of Kerala as they succumb to sand mining.

“Even though these materials are the second largest resources extracted and traded by volume after water, they are one of the least regulated in many regions. The problem is that we have been exceeding easily available sand resources at a growing rate for decades. We are spending our sand ourselves in the position where the needs and expectations of our societies cannot be met without improved governance of global sand resources,” said UN Environment’s Acting Executive Director Joyce Msuya, in her message in the report.

“We need to reconcile relevant global policies and standards with local sand availability, development imperatives and standards and enforcement realities,” she said.

Illegal sand mining is a huge issue in India. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

The Indian context

The issue of sand mining – legal and illegal – is a controversial topic in India and has been in news for one reason or another regularly from the past several years.

Sand mining first gained prominence when the National Green Tribunal in August 2013 passed an order banning sand mining without proper environment clearance. The NGT, in its order, had restrained “any person, company, authority to carry out any mining activity or removal of sand, from river beds anywhere in the country without obtaining Environmental Clearance” from the authorities concerned.

Since then, there has been a series of cases from across India against illegal sand mining. Recently, the NGT levied a penalty of one billion rupees (Rs. 100 crores) on the Andhra Pradesh government for it not stopping illegal sand mining in the state.

In the last few years, the country has also witnessed violence related to illegal sand mining leading to the death of people involved. In February 2019, the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) highlighted that at least 28 people – including labourers, officials and political workers – died in 2018 in violence related to illegal sand mining.

The U.N. report also discussed the safety risks for those working in the sand mining sector, including the drowning of workers removing sand from river beds.

Environmentalists point out that the reality is that illegal sand mining is continuing unabated across India.  

“Illegal sand mining poses risk to life to anyone opposing it and there are many cases of death of people opposing it. But the grim reality is that it cannot happen without strong political backing. In India, we have poor regulations around sand mining and whatever we have are being diluted. We reached out to legal forums to protest against it but the authorities in India in the name of decentralisation sand mining is being encouraged,” said Vikrant Tongad.

Rahul Choudhary, an environmental lawyer, who has been fighting several cases in the NGT related to illegal sand mining, said the main issue is the implementation of regulations related to sand mining.

“One of the main problems is that people involved take clearance for sand mining but they do not follow any condition on the basis of which clearance was given. Conditions, like avoiding the use of machines or doing sand mining till a particular depth, are never followed,” Choudhary told Mongabay-India.

“Regulations that were brought in to govern the sector has not worked so far. The main role in the whole scenario is of the administration as they have to ensure all conditions are followed. Another main concern is that all sand mining activities are carried out by local contractors – not major companies – and they have political affiliations as well. Thus rarely any action is taken against them,” Choudhary added.

Indian government’s Ministry of Mines has also developed a Mining Surveillance System (MSS) to use space technology for facilitating State governments in curbing illegal mining activities in the country.

Across the world, sand is being extracted at unsustainable levels posing a huge threat to the environment. Photo by P. Jeganathan/Wikimedia Commons.

Sand mining is becoming a transboundary issue

The report also cautioned that “sand extraction is fast becoming a transboundary issue due to sand extraction bans, international sourcing of sand for land reclamation projects and impacts of uncontrolled sand extraction beyond national borders.”

For instance, as per the report, Singapore, which needs more space for its growing population, has increased its land area by more than 20 percent in the last 40 years mostly by using aggregates — crushed rock, sand and gravel — to reclaim land from the sea.

“Having imported a reported 517 million tonnes of sand over the last 20 years, Singapore is by far the largest importer of sand world-wide. The sand was typically imported mostly from Indonesia, but also from the other neighbouring countries of Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. Export of sand to Singapore was reported to be responsible for the disappearance of some 24 Indonesian sand islands. It is reported that this triggered political tensions regarding maritime borders between the two countries,” the report highlighted.

The report warned that sand and gravel “cannot be produced from our terrestrial, riverine and marine environments in quantities needed to meet demand from a world of 10 billion people without effective policy, planning, regulation, and management.”

Banner image: Those opposing illegal and unregulated sand mining in India regularly face dangers including a threat to life. Photo by P. Jeganathan/Wikimedia Commons.

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