Sand and stone chips dumped from unplanned mining operations in the Indian state of Meghalaya are being flushed downstream to Bangladesh, affecting arable land and decreasing the depths of the Haor basins. This in turn is making the northeastern region vulnerable to flash-floods.
According to the Department of Agricultural Extension’s Sunamganj district office, around 120 hectares of arable land has been covered by sand in Tahirpur upazila over the last decade, turning it completely barren.
“And this is only in that specific area. If we look across the region, located south of the Megahlaya hills near the Bangladesh-India border, the damage is massive,” said Zahidul Haque, DAE deputy director.
Andrew Sholomar from Rajai village in the upazila is one of the biggest victims of this sand intrusion.
“I have already lost around 15 acres of my 20 acres of land,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
If this cannot be stopped, his family might end up starving as it is dependent on that land, he said.
The flow of sand and stone chips coming down with monsoon water has been decreasing the depths of the Haor basins, increasing the risk of flash-floods.
Hydrologist Prof Ainun Nishat said although the flash-floods are a common phenomenon in the northeastern wetlands, there has been an increase in its frequency and magnitude.
“Water usually carries sediment downstream. This is also true of the northeastern region,” he said.
But the volume of sand intrusion with the water is alarming and need to be stopped at any cost, he added.
Calling attention to several Beels – small water bodies – in Kharchar Haor in Sunamganj, the expert said many of them have already been filled up with sand.
“The frequency and coverage of flash-floods have been increasing in the region as the beds of water bodies are gradually rising up,” said 45-year-old Kamruzzaman Kamrul, chairman of Tahirpur Upazilla Parishad, who has lived in the area since his birth.
What’s going on upstream
Mineral resources including coal, limestone and stones are the biggest part of Meghalaya’s economy.
The mining mostly takes place in three regions of the state – East Khasi Hills, West Khasi Hills and Garo Hills – all of which border Bangladesh.
Sources in Meghalaya say the state government has relatively little control over the mining industry in these autonomous regions. According to the sources, there are around 1,000 operational mines in those three areas, all privately run.
Altrisha Lyndoh, owner of a coal mine in West Khasi hills, told the Dhaka Tribune: “We have been doing this mining business in our own land. We dig the land, extract coal and sell it.”
Asked whether she knows about the impacts of coal mining downstream, she said: “I have no idea.”
HJ Syiemlieh, a professor of geography at the North Eastern Hill University in Shillong, told the Dhaka Tribune: “To extract coal, primarily the miners cut down forests and open pits, which ultimately makes the topsoil unstable and lets it wash downhill with monsoon water.”
In 2015, the Indian National Green Tribunal, a government body, issued a ruling to stop unplanned coal mining in Meghalaya, saying it was destroying the topsoil and the local ecology.
But the professor said as there is no strong government control over the issue, many mines have continued to run their operations in an unplanned manner.
A fateful day
Sand intrusion from Meghalaya has gone up sharply since 2008 when a sudden landslide in the West Khasi Hills of Meghalaya near the Bangladesh-India border sent a massive volume of sand down to Bangladesh.
The incident destroyed around 50 acres of land within minutes.
“Within a few minutes, the nearby ponds and wetlands filled up with sand and stone chips that day,” said 46-year-old local Rokon Uddin, who witnessed the landslide.
More than 2,000 acres of agricultural land in three villages – Chanpur, Rojoni Line and Rajai – owned by local farmers and villagers, disappeared in that single event which changed the area’s ecosystem and robbed thousands of their livelihoods.
Since then, unplanned mining in Meghalaya – one of India’s main source of mineral resources – have been pouring large amounts of sand into the water that eventually flows into Bangladesh and ruins large areas of arable land every monsoon. Mass deforestation, caused by unplanned mining, has also caused the soil in the hills to become more vulnerable to landslides.
Ponchashol Haor, which locals said used to cover a large area near Chanpur village, has now vanished because of sand intrusion from the West Khasi Hills.
Complaints made earlier
In 2009, the Ministry of Environment and Forest in Bangladesh sent a formal letter to the Indian High Commission in Dhaka to inform them of the issue.
However, the issue appears to have been forgotten on both sides.
On a recent visit to Meghalaya, this correspondent met Y Tsering, an additional chief secretary of Meghalaya government and also in charge of mining department, who admitted that he was aware of the issue.
“All good and bad things go to Bangladesh. Water runs from upstream to downstream,” he said, smiling.
“Just like our river water goes down, the sediment goes down and makes the downstream land fertile. Now the sand goes down with water and makes the land barren,” he said.
Professor Ainun Nishat expressed the need for a joint watershed management for the entire region so that the problems can be managed.
Prof HJ Syiemleih similarly said that the two sides need to work together to find the way to stop this sand intrusion.
“India needs the mining and Bangladesh needs to be safe from sand intrusion,” he said.
Prof Nishat also said that Bangladesh government needed to introduce some initiatives, including dredging the water-bodies and heightening the crop protection embankments to reduce the loss of crops in the Haor basins.