Drawing a line in the sand

Illegal sand extraction is a pressing environmental issue

Access to and distribution of natural resources have been the subject of discord and violent conflict between social groups and states throughout the history of mankind. Resource scarcity and greed are played as a metaphor in this context.

The illegal mining of sand degrades the environment and sometimes even leads to violent conflict. The demand of river sand, thus, makes it one of the most profitable businesses all over the world, and the second most usable natural resource, after water and other construction materials.

Desert sand has no use in construction work, so riverbed sand is in demand all over the world for building mega-structures and land reclamation. It has become a multinational criminal trade that affects the ecological health of the planet. The world uses 50 billion tonnes of sand every year. 

Prominent journalist Beiser stated that “sand mining is becoming a very dangerous business.” He also added that the scarcity of sand and effective business regulates the sand mining industry, which has spawned an illegal trade. The demand for sand is so intense in some places that there are organized criminal gangs to deal with people who try to stop it.

Beiser has termed the sand business as the “sand mafia.” High demand and limited supply are leading to sand wars and killings. In India alone 328,737 cases of illegal sand mining were filed between 2014 and 2017. 

Environmental injustice creates environmental conflicts. Illegal sand mining creates environmental injustice. Sand mining on a large scale not only disables the riverbeds and banks, but also impedes natural river flow. Thus, it increases the risks of rivers.

As a result of rampant extortion without any norms and standards, the floodplains go deeper and deeper and there are greater chances of floods. The World Wild Fund for Nature has found that mining is responsible for a 90% drop in sediment level in South Asian rivers. Apart from the ecological harm, sand mining is responsible for causing harm to several species of flora and fauna, by altering the pattern of riverbeds and coastal areas. 

The UN says “sand mining is destroying the environment and livelihood.” Excessive extraction of sand causes the degradation of rivers. Sand mining lowers the stream to the bottom, which leads to riverbank erosion.

Excessive sand mining is a threat to the infrastructure, farmlands, homesteads of river banks and bridges, and dams in the river. Sand mining affects the adjoining ground water system, causes the loss of coastal areas, and increases the salinity of water. Sand mining causes the channel substrate and resumption of streambed sediment. Clearance of vegetation and stock piling on the streambed impacts the ecology. Many people are displaced from their habitats due to erosion and fresh water crisis. 

Bangladesh is blessed with around 700 rivers estimated at 24,140km. Illegal sand mining has become a headache for the Bangladeshi government.

Rajshahi, Kushtia, Kurigram, Sunamganj, Rajbari, Faridpur, Feni, Sirajganj, Pabna, Tangail, and Lalmonirhat are the main hotspots of illegal sand mining. Certain influential figures, government officials, and law enforcement members are involved in the illegal sand business. They are running rampant sand extraction drives right under the noses of the local administration. But law enforcement forces do not take any action against them.

Veteran lawyer and environmentalist Syeda Rizwana Hasan estimates almost 60% to 70% of the total sand in the Bangladeshi market is illegally extracted. At least 100 upazilas out of 495 are the worst sufferers of river bank erosion. Research has found that about 1.3 million people are directly affected by river erosion every year. As a result, it incurs about a $50 million loss in a fiscal year. Every year, 5,000-6,000 hectares of land are lost due to river erosion.

According to the Urban Development Foundation, CEUD: “Every year, 1% of total farmland disappears because of sand mining, fast growing businesses, and rapid urbanization.” Every day more than 2,000 internal migrants flock to the capital Dhaka. Most of them are environmental migrants who are the worst sufferers of riverbank erosion, salinity of water, and loss of farmland. 

Sand mining being a socio-environmental conflict, it can sometimes take a violent turn in Bangladesh. From 2017 to 2021, about nine people died and 400 were injured for grabbing alluvium only in the Jamuna river. Sand trucks are hazardous for reckless driving and overloading. Overturned dump trucks carrying sand cause sand spills on the road and dust in the air. Since this year began, six people, along with children, have succumbed to their deaths under a truck.

Sand carrying bulkheads on waterways causes several accidents in the rivers. On May 3, 2021, 26 people were killed in a speedboat-sand laden bulkhead clash in Padma river in Madaripur. In January, five people were killed by a laden bulkhead-trawler clash in Chandpur. 

Illegal sand extraction is a thorn on the side of the Pan-Indian government. This Pan-Indian problem has turned into a global peril for the environment. It is prevalent in all the rivers in Bangladesh. The illegal activity of sand mining violates the Quarry and Soil Management Act 2010. The Bangladeshi government loses a vast amount of revenue due to illegal sand mining, and it brings about ecological imbalance and natural catastrophes. 

As Kate Adie once stated: “War zones are dangerous, protests can be violent, and also, natural disasters are difficult to cover, so there are going to be risks.” The government must take drastic steps to cease this unlawful business in Bangladesh. Law enforcement should be strict enough to protect our rivers from illegal sand traders. Imprisonment and fines must be strictly enforced.

If we do not protect the patterns and ecology of our rivers, then our future will be plunged into darkness.

Sauid Ahmed Khan is a General Secretary, Green Movement Bangladesh.

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