MAC: Mines and Communities

Sand mining: a global environmental crisis

Published by MAC on 2017-03-03
Source: The Guardian, New York Times, Sixth Tone

The global urbanisation boom is devouring colossal amounts of sand

Worldwide, more than 48bn tonnes of “aggregate” – the industry term for sand and gravel, which tend to be found together – are used for construction every year. That number is double what is was in 2004. Across the world, riverbeds, beaches and floodplains are being stripped bare by sand miners.

Sand mining is causing environmental damage worldwide. In some places locals dig out riverbanks with shovels and haul it away with pickup trucks or donkeys; in others multinational companies dredge it up with machinery. Everywhere, the process impacts its surroundings in ways that range from cosmetic to catastrophic.

China in particular is on a city-building spree that beggars anything the world has ever seen. Over half a billion Chinese now live in urban areas, triple the total of 60 years ago. That’s roughly equal to the populations of the US, Canada and Mexico combined. In the past few years, China has used more cement than the US used in the entire 20th century. Last year alone, the nation used enough construction sand to cover the entire state of New York an inch deep.

In India, the amount of construction sand used annually has more than tripled since 2000, and is still rising fast. There is so much demand for certain types of construction sand that Dubai, which sits on the edge of an enormous desert, imports sand from Australia.

The McKinsey Global Institute calculated that the hundreds of millions of Indians migrating from villages to cities require up to a billion square yards of new real estate development annually. Current construction, according to one estimate, already draws more than 800 million tons of sand every year, mostly from India’s waterways.

See also on MAC:

2016-06-24 The World’s Disappearing Sand

2016-03-22 USA: The fight against Marina sand mining operation

How to Steal a River

To feed an enormous building boom, India’s relentless sand miners have devastated the waterways that make life there possible.

Rollo Romig

MARCH 1, 2017

Several years ago, I took a journey with my wife and baby daughter to my mother-in-law’s childhood home, a forest village in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. As any Keralite will tell you, Kerala is the lushest, most watery corner of India, a skinny coastal strip where hundreds of tributaries merge into broad, winding rivers before finally flowing into the Arabian Sea. My mother-in-law’s village is named Manimala, for the river that provides its reason for being.

My wife spent her childhood summers in Manimala, and all her stories seemed to center on the river: the old stone steps that villagers descended to board a ferry or take a bath; the neighbors fishing or washing elephants; the flotillas of flowers that drifted downstream after monsoon gales. I’d been cultivating a fantasy that our own daughter would spend her summers on these banks. But when we arrived in Manimala, I was shocked: The great river had become a trickle. In a few places it had pooled into puddles big enough for people to wash their clothes. Otherwise it was barren, the stone steps now leading to a gouged-out ravine of pale boulders baking in the sun.

“What happened to the river?” I asked.

“Sand mafia,” my wife’s cousin Thambichan answered.

The Manimala, Thambichan explained, once had a sandy riverbed that in some places was 30 feet deep. The sand acted as an aquifer, regulating the river’s flow. But sand is also a crucial ingredient in concrete, and India is urbanizing at a speed and scale virtually unmatched by any country in history. Apartment towers, highways, bridges, skyscrapers, metros, dams: Each of them swallows unimaginable helpings of sand. It could line the rivers, or it could form the cities that were rising everywhere alongside them, but it could not do both at once.

“No one listened when we warned of the dangers of sand mining,” my wife’s uncle Shaji told me. With nearly all the sand removed from the river, the water table had dropped for miles around. When the monsoons came, the water whooshed away as quickly as the rain fell. The ordinary wells ran dry, so people drilled tube wells deep into the earth; now some of those were running dry, too. The local rice paddies were long gone. Along the river’s route, several major bridges faced collapse, because the loss of sand had weakened their foundations.

When Indians use the term “sand mafia,” they’re talking about the whole range of people who profit from illegal sand mining: the local laborers; the budding capitalists who own the trucks and earthmovers; the genuine mobsters who, in some places, organize the miners and offer extra muscle; the suppliers who act as middlemen between the mafias and the real estate developers; the police and officials who take bribes from any or all of the above. And the politicians — sometimes, it’s rumored, even chief ministers of major states — who take their cut and maybe even run sand-mining operations of their own. The McKinsey Global Institute calculated that the hundreds of millions of Indians migrating from villages to cities require up to a billion square yards of new real estate development annually. Current construction, according to one estimate, already draws more than 800 million tons of sand every year, mostly from India’s waterways. Though no reliable numbers are available, all the people I spoke to in India assumed that much of it is taken illegally.

As I came to know Manimala, it became clear that the river had mostly been mined by the villagers themselves. You could see the evidence in many of the new houses nestled among the rubber trees and coconut palms. Some were made of concrete, large and sprawling and brightly colored: pink, neon yellow, fire-engine red. A few had heaps of sand out front to be used for concrete or plastering for new wings and other renovations.

One evening, I sat with Saji P. Thomas, a slender, energetic former sand miner with a small mustache, in front of his new house. He told me he started sand mining around 2002, to raise money for a new business. (He now runs a small cosmetics factory.) It was possible then to mine sand legally, but Thomas, like many others, didn’t bother with hard-to-obtain permits at first; he mined only at night to evade the police. They worked in groups of four or more, he said. Some would pilot the rowboat and the others would dive as deep as 15 feet to fill their baskets with sand. The loads were awkward and heavy. “We’d make a staircase out of tree stumps,” he said. “But the danger was we’d slip off a step and almost choke to death underwater.”

At the river’s edge, another team would load the sand into a truck. Sometimes, Thomas said, the truck driver would get a call that the police were on their way, and they’d scramble to finish loading the truck and flee; any bribes the authorities might demand could cut deep into their margins. “There are policemen who have built beautiful houses thanks to sand mining,” he said. His previous job, at a bank, paid 400 rupees a day, roughly $5. A good night’s work mining sand earned him 2,000 rupees. So Thomas kept at it. “To distract myself, I’d fantasize that I was a businessman in a nice car.”

The work did sound terribly dangerous. But the most striking detail in Thomas’s story was not about the mining itself, but about the attitude of his neighbors who lived at the river’s edge. Back when there was plenty of sand, trucks came day and night to load up at the river. But to get access they usually had to cut across the property of the town’s riverfront homeowners, most of whom would collect a toll of 150 rupees from each truck that passed. Now that sand mining has wiped out the groundwater, those same homeowners have to hire different trucks — tankers — to bring them drinking water, at more than 1,200 rupees a trip. The sand was gone, and gone with it were the river, the groundwater and even the tolls. All that was left was a question, one that haunts river communities all over India: Why would any village so willingly accept such paltry gains for certain catastrophe?

More than half the apartments built during India’s construction boom can be found in the New Delhi metropolitan area. One of the highest concentrations of these apartments is in Greater Noida, a suburb that lies between the two most sacred rivers in Hindu lore: the Yamuna to the west, and the Ganges to the east. Both rivers are heavily mined, and it’s easy to see where all that sand goes.

Greater Noida has come to embody the shiny, walled-off vertical India of the future. Amid seemingly endless colonies of newly constructed concrete apartment towers, you can enjoy one of India’s finest golf courses and the country’s only Formula One racetrack, as well as a shopping mall that tries to simulate the city of Venice, complete with gondola rides. Among all the well-guarded high-rise clusters, you can still find the remnants of 124 agricultural villages, which 40 years ago were the only habitation in this place: fragmented fields of mustard and wheat, an odd absent acre picked over by a stumbling herd of goats.

Greater Noida was created in 1991 and is administered not by a mayor but by a chief executive. The idea was to transform the farmland just outside booming New Delhi into an industrial hub that would attract job-creating factories. (Noida is an acronym for New Okhla Industrial Development Authority.) Instead, according to local accounts, the authority sold much of the farmland to private developers for 10 or 30 or even several hundred times what they’d paid the original landowning farmer, and Greater Noida became a reservoir for population overflow from New Delhi. The few industries that did come to Greater Noida rarely hired villagers, preferring instead to bus in better-educated workers from other northern cities. Young jobless village men and migrant laborers turned to petty theft, and Greater Noida saw a wave of muggings and carjackings. Some high-rise residents began to treat their complexes as fortresses, driving out only in the daylight.

Naushad Khan, a 37-year-old former sugar-cane farmer with a boyish smile and a boxer’s physique, seized the opportunity presented by the construction boom to enter the entrepreneurial class. As a teenager, he joined and then expanded his elder brother’s digging company, excavating the foundations for new developments and selling the sand they removed. Now, capital in hand, he was starting his own development, an “eco-friendly” luxury condo tower, on the outskirts of Greater Noida. He had turned sand into money, and now he would turn that money right back into something concrete.

Construction, Khan told me, was an extremely competitive business, which he counted as a blessing. “If you want to succeed, then there should be a good, strong rival against you,” he said when we met at his freshly built office. I asked him if sand mining was ever dangerous. By way of answering, he asked an assistant to fetch his pistol. He set it on the table between us as a kind of conversation piece, next to the tea and cookies. It was Indian-made, long-barreled and hefty-looking. He laughed when I asked if he’d ever had to use it. “Many times,” he said. “Tens of times. Scores of times.” He was quick to add a clarification: He’d fired it only for safety, shooting in the air to ward off suspicious people or if the atmosphere was wrong. That sort of thing.

The last time I saw Khan was at an overwhelmingly well catered wedding reception he hosted for his nephew inside a hangar-size tent. Parked inside the entryway was an immaculate white Audi Q5, presumably a wedding gift. Greater Noida had worked out well for him, Khan acknowledged. He always took sand legally, he said — he was quite insistent on this point — and now he could help provide a comfortable standard of living for an extended family with over 40 members. Amid the festivities, Khan seemed almost giddy with pride for all he had achieved.

One afternoon I took a drive around Greater Noida with a local farmer named Vikrant Tongad, a sly young man with pointy shoes and a thick pompadour who wanted to show me what had happened to the surrounding rivers. For long stretches of our trip, the only people we saw on the roadside were hawkers waving glossy brochures, trying to lure us to open houses. Between the high rises, dust storms whipped the empty fields. Every billboard we passed was an advertisement for a high-end condominium. One featured, alongside the usual list of perks, a flirty photograph of the Bollywood star Deepika Padukone and an unsurpassable slogan: “Nothing Left to Desire.”

Why don’t Indians just shift to other construction materials? In part it’s because concrete is cheap, strong, easy to use and highly versatile. In part it’s cultural: Building a house out of brawny concrete has come to be viewed by many as a matter of prestige. “They feel that beauty is a beast,” the architect B.R. Ajit told me ruefully. The law encourages this tendency. One environmental lawyer explained to me that the Indian building code recognizes a house as a house only if it’s made from specific heavy materials — concrete included. “If you use that criterion,” he said, “the president’s house is not a house.”

Now, as we drove past mile after mile of unfinished apartment towers, a city for ghosts, all I could think about was the tons of river sand locked within. Many of the condos in Greater Noida are bought as investments by Indians living abroad, and sometimes buildings are left empty by owners who have no intention of taking residence. In other cases the developers run out of money midconstruction or are halted by legal disputes, leaving bare concrete shells for years on end. Some buyers who actually do intend to move in are left waiting helplessly for the keys to apartments they paid for long ago.

Finally we arrived at the floodplains of the Yamuna. We stopped to survey the deep pits and fresh tracks where sand miners with earthmovers had been working under cover of night. Similar pits dotted the land as far as the horizon, some large enough, I later learned, that children used them as cricket grounds. The mining has shifted the course of the Yamuna, destroyed animal habitats, damaged crops and threatened the purity of local groundwater, and it may be causing buildings to sink. But it’s especially difficult to single out the effects of sand mining on the Yamuna because the river is troubled in so many different ways. The truth is that with the exception of a couple of months during monsoon season, by the time the Yamuna River reaches Greater Noida, there is no river at all.

Tongad walked me down to the banks, and we saw something that looked like a river: There was liquid in the riverbed, and it flowed in a particular direction. But it’s an illusion. Less than 150 miles north, nearly every drop of the Yamuna is rerouted to provide water for the city. The liquid that flows in the Yamuna riverbed alongside Greater Noida consists of every variety of urban waste: factory refuse, slaughterhouse runoff, sewage. If you walk right up to the water, what you’ll find are swirls of oil, clouds of white chemical foam, animal parts, floating turds. I never spent time next to the Yamuna without getting a headache for the rest of the day. And yet old traditions die hard. I saw the Hindu faithful still dipping their idols into this supposedly sacred sludge. Families still cremate their dead on the ghats along the fetid banks.

Our last stop was a shop that appeared to sell cellphone chargers. In fact, the chargers were a ruse; it was really an unlicensed wine shop. In the back room Tongad introduced me to a sand miner named Jagbir Nagar. He was a thin man, around 60, dressed head to toe in white, and with him were several young men from the village, all seated around a hookah.

Nagar is the sarpanch, or head man, of his village in Greater Noida. He also shares an earthmover with a team of five or six others that they use to mine sand from the floodplains. Together, he said, they can take as many as 100 truckloads of sand a night, some of which is used for local projects and the rest of which is mostly picked up by truckers from the desert state of Rajasthan. (If that sounds like sending coals to Newcastle, it’s not; desert sand is too fine and rounded to make strong concrete.)

I asked Nagar if he was worried that the mining might adversely affect the quality of the local water. It was a question I had an immediate interest in, given that we were at that moment drinking glasses of what they’d told me was unfiltered local groundwater. Nagar grunted in the negative and looked like at me as if I were an idiot.

Tongad answered for him. “They’re happy with mining,” he said. “Groundwater depletes: No problem. River is dying: No problem.”

“People are selfish,” a younger man agreed.

“The miners say, We dig a hole, and the next year the river comes and fills it again,” Tongad said. “So what’s the problem?”

I had often encountered this attitude in India. Everything is rigged, the argument goes. How can you expect us not to seize whatever meager leavings we can? It’s not as if we’re carjackers — we’re taking sand! From what used to be our own land! It’s difficult to convince people who for generations have taken local sand for granted that, like passenger pigeons a century ago, something they had thought of as infinite is now dangerously finite. It’s difficult to tell people who have always been able to take sand according to their needs, and who now have seen outsiders come in and derive great profit from it, that sand is in fact a critical natural resource that needs to be protected.

“If the police come, do you fight them?” I asked Nagar.

“If there are a lot of police and only a few men, then we run,” he said. “If the police are few and the men are many, then we get into it with them. We fire shot for shot.”

Nagendra Prasad Singh, the district magistrate in charge of enforcing the law in Greater Noida, is a serious man, built like a pillar, with a push-broom mustache and a slight twitch in his right eye. He came from a farming family but earned a graduate degree in physics before entering the Civil Service. His previous posting was in Shamli district, which also lies on the Yamuna, and it was said that he put a complete stop to sand mining there — the first I had heard of any such success anywhere in India.

When he came to the New Delhi suburbs, Singh quickly began running night raids on illegal miners, seizing dozens of truckloads of sand and imposing fines of tens of millions of rupees on the violators. At his office in Noida’s Sector 27, I asked him if the raids had posed any danger for him. “Have you read the Gita?” he asked. “The soul never dies. The energy may change shape, but the soul never dies. With that kind of confidence, I don’t think anybody can shoot us.”

Singh said he had been fighting the sand mafia since 1999, when he was the city magistrate in Haridwar, a pilgrimage town that marks the spot where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayas. There he learned all about the sand trade from a tiny but stubborn community of activist Hindu monks called Matri Sadan. Their leader, a dreadlocked former chemistry teacher now called Swami Shivanand, moved to Haridwar in 1997 to devote his life to praise of the Ganges, but his prayers were disrupted by the incessant work of the sand mafia. The swami’s objections to mining in the Ganges were largely religious, but as a chemist he was also keenly attuned to the earthly costs.

Together Singh and Swami Shivanand set their sights on a businessman named Ponty Chadha, who ruled the sand trade across the state of Uttar Pradesh. He was also the distributor of many Bollywood blockbusters, a real estate magnate, the state’s main liquor baron and a philanthropist focused on special-needs children and had close ties to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Singh and the monks managed to get Chadha’s sand-mining license revoked, which left the trade to the motley assortment of smaller players that dominates it to this day. (Chadha died in 2012, when a real estate dispute with his brother Hardeep escalated into a gunfight.)

Singh eventually realized that law enforcement alone would not be enough to stop the theft; arresting the leaders of many smaller mafias may be an even greater challenge than ousting a big gangster like Chadha. Now his focus is on harm reduction. Central to his argument is an exasperating fact: There really is enough sand in the rivers and offshore to meet India’s demand for concrete and plaster, at least according to many conservationists. In some cases sand mining can even be beneficial. An oversilted river — a river with too much sand — is also prone to flooding and changing course, and strategic sand mining can help keep it on track. The catastrophes occur only when specific, vulnerable stretches of river are overmined. There’d be no problem if the construction industry mined only from river sites with a carefully identified surplus of sand.

Existing laws on sand mining should be adequate to regulate the trade, but as is so often the case in India, the laws are toothless. In 2013, for example, India’s National Green Tribunal — a special fast-track court for environmental violations — issued a blanket ban on all river-sand mining without environmental clearance. But according to the environmental lawyer Rahul Choudhary, almost all of the applications are granted clearance. Rejections usually occur only because of incomplete paperwork.

Singh has a different approach. The first step, he said, is to secure genuine environmental clearances, based on field studies. Next, offer leases to mine on those cleared sites by public auction, with strict parameters on the dimensions of the lease and the depth of excavation permitted. There is no honor system; surveyors must map the site and then fix posts into the riverbed to physically block the leaseholders from mining beyond the designated zone. When the mining begins, the magistrate and his officials make frequent unannounced inspections of the sites and weekly video recordings to monitor the depth of sand. The magistrate must also hold regular meetings with townspeople in mafia-prone areas. “Most important,” Singh said, “is the awareness of the people who are living along the river, so that they may feel like a watchdog, that the river’s interest is their own interest.”

It sounded like a smart plan. But it also seemed to rely almost completely on the presence of extraordinarily vigilant magistrates. If a district was unlucky enough to be assigned a corrupt magistrate, or merely one whose interest in sand mining were less intense than Singh’s, the system would fall apart. It was going to be a difficult model to replicate.

I asked Singh if he knew any other magistrates who were taking a similar approach. “I am not in contact with anybody who is doing this,” he said.

Criminality and graft have come to be seen as such incontrovertible facts of life in India that, in my experience, people seldom mind discussing them openly. When I met a young real estate agent named Girish Kasana in the office of his father’s construction company, for instance, he brought a particularly well-informed perspective on the realities of how Indian cities are built. “Everything is corrupt,” he said.

Construction is the business where criminals have the best opportunities to launder the most money, he explained, and a cascade of bribes go “to the topmost levels in the government.” Kasana grabbed a copy of a construction tender on his father’s desk and started furiously scribbling numbers on the back. To get a typical government construction commission, he explained, you pay 6 percent in bribes up front. Then, after the first payment, you pay another 7 percent, half of which goes to the state’s top politicians. The development authority’s junior engineer gets 3 percent. The associate engineer gets 1.5 percent. The senior manager gets 3 percent, and so on — until the total reached an astonishing 30 percent. “When this is given, then almost anyone can be managed,” Kasana said. “This is the system. This is India.”

“The thing to do is to get a job in the authority,” my translator joked.

“This can also be done,” Kasana said. To get a job as a junior engineer, he said, requires a bribe of 10 million rupees.

As I talked to developers about sand mining, I often found myself sympathetic to their explanations. The existing system practically forces anyone who wants to build something to collude in the destruction of the rivers. The sand trade is furthermore sustained by a devilishly inbuilt chain of plausible deniability. Unlike most other categories of mining, where large companies dominate the business, sand mining is executed by an endless array of small, independent, often temporary players, largely working at night and in secret. And each step of the line of production is separated from the rest: The sand moves from diggers to truckers to dealers to builders with each link in the chain knowing as little as possible about where the sand they’re buying comes from or who mines it — for obvious reasons, they don’t want to know. Nameable sand dons like Ponty Chadha are rare. The fragmentation and anonymity of the chain is exactly what allows it to continue with so much impunity.

“I believe in the power of the people,” Singh told me on my last day in the New Delhi suburbs, just before we got into his pristine white Hindustan Ambassador to go talk to the villagers of Jhatta about sand mining. “To stop an illegal thing, first show your intention. If you are a man of integrity, you have to show it, because people never believe you at first. But gradually, gradually, if you succeed in showing them that you have no personal motive, that you are just trying to motivate them in the larger public interest, that you are just doing your duty, then the people become convinced. That’s my experience.”

In Jhatta, more than 100 villagers, all men, all wearing their best starched whites, gathered in a courtyard next to the village temple to hear Singh’s speech. They had covered their chairs with silky white slipcovers and presented the magistrate with a bursting bouquet of flowers. His oration on sand mining drew on every appeal at his disposal, rhapsodizing about rivers, spelling out the science, quoting scripture. When he finished, his deputy led the villagers in a chant: “Illegal mining: We won’t do it, and we won’t let it happen!” (It’s catchier in Hindi.)

It was a compelling speech, and I could see how Singh might convince the villagers of Jhatta, person by person, moment by moment. But of course his adversary is not each villager one by one. It is the systems and values many of us hold in common — the competitive lure of conspicuous consumption, the insatiable engine of development, the universal corruption that fuels it — all of them obstructing any effort to reckon with environmental catastrophe, which has a confounding tendency to manifest itself long after the original gains have accrued.

After the speech, a farmer named Sohan Pal Singh approached me to say that the district magistrate was making too much of sand mining. “For us, it’s a normal activity,” he said. “It’s not such a big deal.” He wanted to show me something outside: Piled against the wall of the courtyard where the meeting was just held was a heap of sand that he himself had helped mine.

I asked him if he planned to stop mining after hearing what the district magistrate had to say. He scowled.

“If the district magistrate told me to stop wearing clothes,” he asked, “should I take off my shirt?”

He who controls the sand: the mining 'mafias' killing each other to build cities

Rapid urbanisation has made an ordinary commodity suddenly precious: sand. As cities continue to voraciously need concrete, glass and asphalt, illegal sand mining has sparked a global wave of gang violence.

Vince Beiser

28 February 2017

In the dark of the night of 20 December, two Kenyan truck drivers met a blazing death. The men were loading up their vehicles at around 2am on the bank of the Muooni river, about 60 miles south-east of Nairobi, when a mob of local youths descended on them. The attackers torched the lorries, burning the drivers “beyond recognition”, police told a local newspaper. A third truck driver was shot with arrows.

The grisly episode was the most dramatic outbreak in a wave of recent violence in Makueni County, an impoverished rural area that is home to just under 1 million people. In the last two years, at least nine people have been killed and dozens more injured, including police officers and government officials. The carnage has been sparked by an unlikely substance that is fast becoming one of the 21st century’s most important commodities: sand.

Though most people never give it a second thought, sand is a crucial ingredient in the construction of roads and buildings – the skeletons of modern cities. Concrete and asphalt are largely just sand and gravel glued together with cement.

In Kenya, as in most of the developing world, cities are growing at a frenzied pace. Nairobi’s population has increased tenfold since the country became independent in 1963, and is now fast approaching 4 million. The number of urban dwellers in the world has shot from fewer than 1 billion in 1950 to almost 4 billion today, and the UN predicts another 2.5 billion will join them in the next three decades. That’s the equivalent of adding eight New York Cities every year.

Creating buildings to house all the people and the roads to knit them together requires prodigious quantities of sand. Worldwide, more than 48bn tonnes of “aggregate” – the industry term for sand and gravel, which tend to be found together – are used for construction every year. That number is double what is was in 2004. It’s an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually.

Pulling all of that sand out of the ground, however, takes a severe toll on the environment. Across the world, riverbeds, beaches and floodplains are being stripped bare by sand miners. In response, authorities are trying to regulate the manner and location of extraction. In turn, it has spawned a global boom in illegal sand mining. “As the price of sand goes up, the ‘mafias’ get more involved,” says Pascal Peduzzi, a researcher with the United Nations environment programme and author of a study on sand mining.

Every year criminal gangs across the world dig up countless tonnes of sand to sell on the black market. One of Israel’s notorious gangsters started by stealing sand from public beaches.In Morocco, half of the sand used for construction comes from illegal mining. And in Malaysia, dozens of officials were charged for accepting bribes and sexual favours in exchange for allowing illegally mined sand to be smuggled out of the country.

Like any big-money black market, the sand trade is inciting violence. In Cambodia, environmental activists have been imprisoned for trying to stop illegal mining. In China, a dozen members of rival sand-mining gangs were sent to prison in 2015 after battling with knives in front of a police station. In that same year in East Java, Indonesia, two farmers – Salim Kancil, 52, and Tosan, 51 – led a series of protests against an illegal beach sand-mining operation. The mine operators threatened to kill them if they kept interfering; the farmers reported the threats to the police and asked for protection. Soon after, at least a dozen men attacked Tosan, ran him over with a motorcycle and left him for dead in the middle of the road. Salim was battered and stabbed to death. His body was left on the street with his hands tied behind his back.

In India, “sand mafias” have injured hundreds and killed dozens of people in recent years. The victims include an 81-year-old teacher and a 22-year-old activist who were separately hacked to death, a journalist who was burned to death, and at least three police officers who were run over by sand trucks.

Intimidation and corruption keep the authorities at bay. Police and government officials trying to crack down on the illegal sand trade in many countries have been assaulted, shot at, and occasionally murdered. But bribery is generally preferred. Truckers hauling illegal sand from Makueni to Nairobi freely admitted to Kenyan researchers in a 2015 report that they hand out bribes to police along the road. Makueni governor Kivuthu Kibwana has directly accused local police officials and provincial administrators of involvement with the illegal sand trade.

Sand mining has been banned in much of Makueni County in recent years, but the trade continues. “Between tonight and 7am tomorrow morning you can stand on the highway and count 100 lorries heading to Nairobi [full of sand],” says Timothy Maneno, a member of the Makueni County legislature.

“The damage in Makueni is very significant,” says Gino Cocchiaro, head of the extractive industries programme at Natural Justice, an environmental organisation based in Africa. “River systems have been so completely mined that the ecosystem has been drastically changed.”

Makueni is a semi-arid area whose people depend on livestock and substance farming, so any interference with water sources can have serious consequences. By stripping riverbeds and banks, sand harvesters have lowered water tables, eroded land and altered the course of rivers, putting them out of reach of farmers’ fields. The Kenyan government recently declared in an official bulletin that sand harvesting, as it is known, has “wrought wanton destruction on our rivers, farms and land to the point where it is now a human catastrophe”.

All of which has sparked clashes between sand miners, authorities and locals furious about the damage being done to their lands and communities. For several years now, they have battled with bows and arrows, machete-like pangas and Molotov cocktails.

One night last August, more than 40 men attacked a dozen county officers on the highway to Nairobi, beating them and setting their vehicles on fire. In early December, two more men were shot with arrows and four others attacked with pangas, allegedly by sand miners. That was followed by the deadly retaliation on 20 December. And earlier this month, a Makueni County police officer was hacked to death by suspected sand miners.

“The people harvesting the sand don’t care about the environmental consequences. All they want is the sand,” says Maneno. “Definitely the conflict will continue.”

As the demand for sand continues to grow around the world, the body count seems certain to rise with it.

The reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Additional reporting by Jacob Kushner.

Sand mining: the global environmental crisis you’ve probably never heard of

From Cambodia to California, industrial-scale sand mining is causing wildlife to die, local trade to wither and bridges to collapse. And booming urbanisation means the demand for this increasingly valuable resource is unlikely to let up.

Vince Beiser

27 February 2017

Times are good for Fey Wei Dong. A genial, middle-aged businessman based near Shanghai, China, Fey says he is raking in the equivalent of £180,000 a year from trading in the humblest of commodities: sand.

Fey often works in a fishing village on Poyang Lake, China’s biggest freshwater lake and a haven for millions of migratory birds and several endangered species. The village is little more than a tiny collection of ramshackle houses and battered wooden docks. It is dwarfed by a flotilla anchored just offshore, of colossal dredges and barges, hulking metal flatboats with cranes jutting from their decks. Fey comes here regularly to buy boatloads of raw sand dredged from Poyang’s bottom. He ships it 300 miles down the Yangtze River and resells it to builders in booming Shanghai who need it to make concrete.

The demand is voracious. The global urbanisation boom is devouring colossal amounts of sand – the key ingredient of concrete and asphalt. Shanghai, China’s financial centre, has exploded in the last 20 years. The city has added 7 million new residents since 2000, raising its population to more than 23 million. In the last decade, Shanghai has built more high-rises than there are in all of New York City, as well as countless miles of roads and other infrastructure. “My sand helped build Shanghai Pudong airport,” Fey brags.

Hundreds of dredgers may be on the lake on any given day, some the size of tipped-over apartment buildings. The biggest can haul in as much as 10,000 tonnes of sand an hour. A recent study estimates that 236m cubic metres of sand are taken out of the lake annually. That makes Poyang the biggest sand mine on the planet, far bigger than the three largest sand mines in the US combined. “I couldn’t believe it when we did the calculations,” says David Shankman, a University of Alabama geographer and one of the study’s authors.

All that dredging, researchers believe, is a key reason why the lake’s water level has dropped dramatically in recent years. So much sand has been scooped out, says Shankman – 30 times more than the amount that flows in from tributary rivers – that the lake’s outflow channel has been drastically deepened and widened, nearly doubling the amount of water that flows into the Yangtze. The lower water levels are translating into declines in water quality and supply to surrounding wetlands. It could be ruinous for the area’s inhabitants, both animal and human.

A building problem

Poyang Lake, which sits in a verdant rural area best known for a waterfall in the nearby hills, is Asia’s largest winter destination for migratory birds. It hosts millions of cranes, geese and storks during the cold months – as well as several endangered and rare species. It is also one of the few remaining habitats for the endangered freshwater porpoise. Studies have found that the sediment stirred up and the noise generated by sand boats interfere with the porpoise’s vision and sonar so drastically they cannot find fish and shrimp to feed on. And there are fewer fish to be found in the first place, say locals.

“The boats are destroying our fishing areas,” says one wrinkled fisherwoman selling plastic bags of crayfish. The dredging destroys fish breeding grounds, muddies the water and tears up her nets. These days, she says, she’s lucky to make £1,200 a year.

“I’ve been fishing here for 30 years, and there are fewer and fewer fish,” says Tan Jung Hwa, another local fisherman. He’s taken to working part-time on the sand boats because he can’t earn enough otherwise.

Lake Poyang may be a unique place, but the damage being done there is not. All around the world, riverbeds and beaches are being stripped bare, and farmlands and forests torn up to get at the precious sand grains. It’s a worldwide crisis that nobody has heard about.

The main driver of this crisis is our era’s unprecedented urban growth. Cities are expanding at a pace and on a scale far greater than at any time in human history. The number of people living in urban areas has more than quadrupled since 1950, to about 4 billion today. More than half of the world’s people now live in cities – with another 2.5 billion to come in the next three decades, according to the UN.

All these new cities require mind-boggling amounts of sand. Just about every apartment block, skyscraper, office tower and shopping mall that gets built anywhere from Beijing to Lagos is made with concrete, which is essentially just sand and gravel glued together with cement. Every yard of asphalt road that connects those buildings is also made with sand. So is every window in every one of those buildings.

In India, the amount of construction sand used annually has more than tripled since 2000, and is still rising fast. There is so much demand for certain types of construction sand that Dubai, which sits on the edge of an enormous desert, imports sand from Australia.

China in particular is on a city-building spree that beggars anything the world has ever seen. Over half a billion Chinese now live in urban areas, triple the total of 60 years ago. That’s roughly equal to the populations of the US, Canada and Mexico combined. China is also home to the world’s biggest urban agglomeration: the Pearl River Delta, across from Hong Kong, bursting with somewhere between 42 and 60 million inhabitants. Even Nanchang, the unglamorous provincial city that is the nearest major urban area to Lake Poyang, is fringed with fast-growing forests of high-rise apartment blocks.

In the past few years, China has used more cement than the US used in the entire 20th century. Last year alone, the nation used enough construction sand to cover the entire state of New York an inch deep.

All that sand has to come from somewhere. In the region around Shanghai, it came until recently from the bed of the Yangtze River. That turned out to be a bad idea. By the late 1990s miners had pulled out so much that bridges were undermined, shipping was snarled, and 1,000ft swaths of riverbank collapsed.

Unnerved by the damage to a waterway that provides water to 400 million people, Chinese authorities banned sand mining on the Yangtze in 2000. That sent the miners swarming to Poyang Lake.

The boats used to dig up the sand are essentially gigantic floating platforms, fitted with two huge conveyor belts studded with buckets that haul up sand from the bottom of the lake. The sand is then transferred to transport ships. In one narrow part of the lake, dozens of dredgers extend from the shore in a line, leaving only a narrow passageway for a tugboat hauling a barge piled up with yellow sand.

“We used to make more money, but now there is too much competition,” complains a crew member aboard one of the dredgers. “There are too many people doing this job.”

Catastrophic damage

Sand mining is causing environmental damage worldwide. In some places locals dig out riverbanks with shovels and haul it away with pickup trucks or donkeys; in others multinational companies dredge it up with machinery. Everywhere, the process impacts its surroundings in ways that range from cosmetic to catastrophic.

In mid-January, just north of Monterey, California, several dozen cheering activists made an odd political statement: they dumped 200 pounds of bagged, store-bought sand onto a beach. They were returning the grains to where they had come from. The sand had originally been mined from that beach – a beach which, according to researchers, is gradually disappearing as a result.

“This is the fastest eroding shoreline in California,” says professor Ed Thornton, a retired coastal engineer with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey who has been studying the impact of the mine for years and who spoke at the demonstration. “We’re losing eight acres a year of pristine shore, some of the most beautiful in the world. It’s because of sand mining.” (A spokesperson for Cemex, the company that operates the mine, says via email that Thornton’s conclusions “are based on what we believe to be erroneous, speculative data and unsound theory”.)

The beach is the only one in the US that is still being mined for construction sand. Cemex, a global construction firm based in Mexico, operates a dredger that sucks up an estimated 270,000 cubic metres of sand every year. For most of the 20th century there were many such sand mines along the California coast, but in the late 1980s the federal government shut them down due to the erosion being suffered by the Golden State’s famous beaches. The Cemex plant is still operating thanks to a legal loophole – it appears to sit above the mean high-tide line, putting it out of federal jurisdiction. But protesters want state authorities to step in.

Environmentalists in many places are similarly calling on their governments to rein in sand mining. In Northern Ireland, activists are trying to stop dredging in Lough Neagh, an important bird sanctuary. In southern England, developers want to dredge sand to expand the port of Dover from a stretch of offshore sandbars and shoals, prompting an outcry from conservationists who fear that would endanger the seals, birds and other marine life for whom the sandbars provide habitat and food.

Different types of sand mining inflict different types of damage. Dredging from river beds destroys the habitat of bottom-dwelling creatures and organisms. The churned-up sediment clouds the water, suffocating fish and blocking the sunlight that sustains underwater vegetation. Kenyan officials shut down all river sand mines in one part of the country a few years ago because of the environmental damage it was causing. India’s supreme court recently warned that “the alarming rate of unrestricted sand mining” is disrupting riparian ecosystems all over the country, with fatal consequences for fish and other aquatic organisms and “disaster” for many bird species.

Sand extraction from rivers has also caused millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure. When stirred, sediment clogs up water supply equipment, and all the earth removed from river banks leaves the foundations of bridges exposed and unsupported. A 1998 study found that each tonne of aggregate mined from a California river caused $3 in infrastructure damage – costs that are borne by taxpayers. In Ghana, sand miners have dug up so much ground that they have exposed the foundations of hillside buildings, putting them at risk of collapse.

It’s not just a theoretical risk. Sand mining caused a bridge to collapse in Taiwan in 2000, and another the following year in Portugal, as a bus was passing over it; 70 people were killed. Another bridge collapse in India in 2016 that killed 26 may have been caused by sand mining, though the local government denies it.

Mining sand from the floodplains near rivers is less damaging but it can alter the water’s course, creating dead-end diversions and pits that have proven fatal to salmon in Washington state. In Australia, flood plains that are home to the world’s biggest collection of rare carnivorous plants are being wiped out by sand mining. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, farmers fear that a recent boom in sand mining is polluting their water and air. In Vietnam, miners have torn up hundreds of acres of forest and farmers’ fields to get at underground sand deposits.

As land quarries and riverbeds become exhausted, sand miners are turning to the seas. The UK, for instance, gets about one fifth of the nation’s sand from the ocean floor. Worldwide, thousands of ships vacuum up millions of tonnes from the seabed each year, tearing up habitats and muddying waters with sand plumes that can affect aquatic life far from the original site.

Closer to shore, in places such as coastal Cambodia, dredging threatens important mangrove forests, seagrass beds and endangered species like Irrawaddy and spinner dolphins, and the royal turtle. On land, sand miners have devoured whole swaths of beach, from Jamaica to Russia.

The most dramatic impact of ocean sand mining is surely felt in Indonesia, where sand miners have completely erased at least two dozen islands since 2005. The stuff of those islands mostly ended up in Singapore, which needs titanic amounts to continue its programme of artificially adding territory by reclaiming land from the sea. The city-state has created an extra 20 square miles in the past 40 years and is still adding more, making it by far the world’s largest sand importer. The demand has denuded beaches and river beds in neighbouring countries to such an extent that Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have all restricted or banned the export of sand to Singapore.

“It’s the same story as over-fishing and over-foresting,” says Pascal Peduzzi, a researcher with the United Nations environment programme who authored a study on sand mining. “It’s another way to look at unsustainable development.” The problem is that the supply of sand that can be mined sustainably is finite – but as the great urbanisation boom is proving, the demand for it is anything but.

Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

The Environmental Costs of Sand Mining on the Mekong

In China’s Yunnan province, dredging river sediment is good business — but experts warn of its impact on the region’s fragile ecosystems.

Luc Forsyth and Denise Hruby

Jan 29, 2017

Along the waterfront of the small town of Simaogang, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, the rusted bolts and gears of an aging crane scream in protest as load after load of wet sand from the Mekong River is dumped into the holds of the dredging barges. From atop a concrete wall high above the thrum, the company’s owner watches his fleet begin another day.

Sand that covers the bottom of the Mekong — which is known as the Lancang River in China — is the area’s major commercial resource. And around Chinese New Year is when Shen, who commands several barges on this stretch of the Mekong and only gave his last name, makes the best profits.

“The busiest time of year is around the lunar new year, which people believe is an auspicious time for construction,” Shen said. “They either start new projects or finish the ones they have already started because it’s considered a lucky time of year.”

With his four boats and about a dozen crew members, Shen can dredge up to 850 cubic meters of sand from the riverbed per day. Larger dredges, meanwhile, can mine as much as 5,000 cubic meters of sand per day. In 2014, a cubic meter of sand sold for 90 yuan — meaning a single large dredge can excavate 450,000 yuan worth of sand in one day.

Most people pay little attention to sand. It’s one of the planet’s most unglamorous resources, and it is unremarkable to look at, though seemingly everywhere, and in great quantities. But Shen and other sand miners have not overlooked its importance: Without sand, there can be no cement, and without cement, there can be no concrete — the main building material for new roads, houses, and skyscrapers to accommodate the world’s increasingly urbanized population. Even the ancient Egyptians knew how to make what is today the world’s most widely used building material.

Two hundred tons of sand are needed for an average-sized house; 30,000 for a kilometer of highway. Unfortunately, sand is a finite resource, contrary to how it may seem from the perspective of a beachgoer on vacation.

Little data on the usage of sand is available, but the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has put the world’s consumption of sand and gravel at more than 40 billion tons a year — twice as great as the amount of sediment transported annually by all the world’s rivers. After water, sand and gravel are the most used raw materials on earth, and because it takes thousands of years for sand to form, the current usage rate far outpaces the replenishing rate.

In China, demand for sand is greater than anywhere else in the world. China’s economic growth, which has already slowed down to around 7 percent, is increasingly reliant on the country’s housing boom. And although the stock of unsold property has skyrocketed in recent years, it hasn’t prevented new construction from breaking ground, according to research from Fathom Consulting, a global financial consulting firm.

Between 2000 and 2010, the Economist Intelligence Unit found, China built as much new housing as all of Japan had at the time, and this unchecked construction has had a tremendous impact on natural resources like sand. “At current rates of construction,” the report reads, “China can build a city the size of Rome in only two weeks. This means China is underpinning demand in global markets for many key commodities.”

According to the U.N., China’s demand for cement increased by more than 400 percent from 1994 to 2012, with the preferred ingredient being river sand, as desert sand is too round to bind well, and the salinity of marine sand makes it susceptible to erosion.

“Sometimes the river moves very fast, and it is harder to collect sand,” said Shen, adding that his team always manages to find a way to get at the precious resource. While watching his ships perform the monotonous job of bringing the Mekong’s sand to the surface, Shen explained how he first saw the chance to turn the natural resource into quick cash.

The 53-year-old worked in a wire factory in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, for most of his life before starting in the dredging business several years ago, seeing an opportunity to supply the booming construction industry with sought-after building materials.

As the two larger of Shen’s four dredges loosed their mooring lines and reversed slowly into deeper water, the two smaller boats stayed close to shore, their cranes swinging in and out of the water with practiced speed.

While some of this sand is needed for local construction purposes, most of it will be transported to Jinghong — a stone’s throw from the borders shared with Laos and Myanmar — to support the area’s ambitious housing and infrastructure projects.

The process is relatively simple: Dredges suck the sand from the river bottom through snaking lengths of piping, or scoop it up with a mechanized chain of metal buckets. The methods employed by the dozens of boats along the shore seem little more than an industrial manifestation of a playing child’s imagination. For the ecosystem, however, the impact of this enterprise can be devastating.

“Sand dredging changes the structure and appearance of the riverway,” Huang Daoming, deputy chief engineer at the Institute of Hydroecology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan, told Sixth Tone. Depleting the riverbed of sand not only leads to the erosion of riverbanks, but also threatens fish populations.

The thousands of fish species found in the Mekong have adapted to the river’s unique habitat, which needs to remain stable to ensure the long-term survival of the species. Even small changes can be so disruptive that they could cause an entire species to go extinct.

Structured riverbeds also offer a refuge from the current and serve as protection from predators. Even if fish species survive physical alterations to their habitat, dredging kills their eggs, which are commonly deposited in the sediment. “So [dredging] will affect the fish resources in a negative way,” Huang said. Indeed, Researchers have already shown that sand dredging decreases overall fish populations and reduces the diversity of aquatic life.

But despite the impact dredging has on riparian ecosystems, the issue has been ignored by policymakers across the globe and remains largely unknown by the general public, wrote Pascal Peduzzi, one of the world’s few experts on sand mining, in an article for UNEP.

Fueled by international demand, mainly from countries like Singapore, vast sand dredging operations in some Southeast Asian countries have severely depleted local resources. In Indonesia, for example, several islands disappeared before a ban on sand exports was imposed, and yet the practice still continues today.

Vietnam, one of the countries along the Mekong, and Malaysia have also banned the export of sand, citing environmental concerns. In Cambodia, where $750 million worth of sand has been exported to Singapore over the past eight years, environmental groups are pushing for a ban.

But although operations often affect several countries, especially if they are located in international waters or on transnational rivers like the Mekong, which runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, there are no international regulations when it comes to mining river sand.

In China, sand dredging is generally allowed with permission from county or provincial authorities. Shen, who set up his business right next to a government office, is properly licensed — though permits to dredge in the area can be purchased online for around 300,000 yuan. On the Yunnan stretch of the Mekong, the provincial government has banned sand dredging in certain places, usually in ecological hotspots with high biodiversity. In fact, dredging is banned up- and downstream of Simaogang, but not around the town itself.

There hasn’t yet been a clear assessment of how exactly sand dredging operations in Yunnan have affected the biodiversity and fish populations of the Mekong. The overall loss of sediment, however, has demonstrably affected the natural landscape in countries like Vietnam, where the Mekong forms a delta so rich in nutrients that it produces the vast majority of the country’s staple foods, including rice.

On the Lower Mekong, between Laos and Vietnam, about 50 million tons of sand — more sediment than the river produces in one year — were extracted in 2011, according to a World Wildlife Fund estimate. This huge loss of sand has caused water levels on main channels to drop by more than a meter from 1998 to 2008, allowing salty seawater to flood rice paddies and ruin crops.

But none of that concerns Shen and his fleet of barges in Simaogang. For him, sand dredging simply offers a better way of life, even if he has to work from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m., pausing only at midday for noodles, tea, and cigarettes.

This story was published in collaboration with A River’s Tail, a yearlong exploration of the Mekong from the river’s delta in Vietnam to its source in the Tibetan Plateau. For more stories from the Mekong, visit

With contributions from Wang Yiwei.

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