Boom in illegal sand mining threatens vulnerable lakes and rivers

Illegal sand mining due to a post-pandemic surge in infrastructure spending risks degrading some of the world’s most vulnerable lakes and rivers, environmental researchers have warned.

Sand, mixed with cement to make concrete, is the most consumed material on Earth, with the exception of water. As the decreasing threat of the virus in countries such as China Sparks a surge in construction activity, there are fears that criminal gangs that play a leading role in the industry have been prompted to dredge even more sand from delicate ecosystems.

“From now on, we will see governments pouring a lot of money into infrastructure to stimulate the economy, which will trigger a high demand for sand and gravel,” said Pascal Peduzzi, head of the information database. on the global resources of the United Nations Environment Program in Geneva.

Peduzzi explained that lakes and rivers have been damaged by sand mining, which can alter stream courses, lower lake levels, erode riverbanks and disrupt wildlife. “In some places it has been such a load on these environments, it has led to total ecological disaster,” he said.

Kiran Pereira, author of Sand Stories: Surprising Truths About The Global Sand Crisis, said many large projects had already started under the guise of the global health crisis.

“Covid had the effect of increasing the amount [of sand] which is being extracted, ”she said. “Many governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to push forward unsuccessful projects, such as land reclamation.”

Excavators in an illegal sand quarry in Pekan Bada in Indonesia last year © Chaideer Mahyuddin / AFP / Getty

Sand found under lakes and rivers is better for making concrete than sea or desert sand, which is too rounded to bond with cement. Although the sand appears to be plentiful, it takes thousands of years to form through erosion.

Reserves are quickly depleted because the sand is extracted faster than it can be replenished. As mining is poorly regulated around the world and mining is often undertaken informally, the activity is dominated by organized criminal gangs in many areas.

A paper published in March in the journal Extractive industries and society pointed out how the sand mining industry was “plagued by rampant illegality, a strong black market and intense violence”.

There is little global data on the problem, in part because the sand is typically mined locally near where it is used.

“It’s the most exploited natural resource on the planet, yet we know very little where it comes from and who uses it,” said Dave Tickner, advisor to the WWF, the conservation group. “This is a surprisingly low-key question given its importance in our daily lives.”

The linear graph of cement (billion metric tons) is a close approximation of sand consumption showing Cement production has tripled in the past two decades

The problem is most acute in China, the world’s largest consumer of sand.

Beijing has relied on state-dominated industries and infrastructure spending to spur a post-pandemic recovery. China accounts for 58% of global demand for sand and gravel, according to UNEP data.

The high demand and the lure of big profits have attracted criminals who resort to elaborate ploys to cover up their activities. They often operate at night using boats whose dredging equipment is hidden by the water.

A crackdown by Chinese authorities on illegal sand mining from the Yangtze River this year uncovered two dozen gangs involving more than 200 people and revenues of over 17 million rmb ($ 2.6 million).

Interest in environmental protection, symbolized by repression, comes as the country prepares to host a UN biodiversity summit this year. “They [China] have really stepped up monitoring and enforcement. They really cracked down, ”Pereira said.

Yet environmentalists say what has been exposed is only a fraction of a large illegal mining industry.

Elsewhere in China, intense sand extraction in freshwater lakes like Poyang and Dongting lowered water levels, increased the risk of drought, and endangered local wildlife.

Graph showing sand mining in Lake Poyang in China

China’s insatiable demand for sand has also taken a geopolitical advantage: aggressive sand mining around the Taiwanese island of Matsu has become a major sticking point between Beijing and Taipei.

China has also used copious amounts of sand to build man-made islands that can house military bases and bolster Beijing’s claims in disputed waters.

Yu Bowen, a researcher at the China Aggregates Association, said coastal provinces such as Fujian, across the Taiwan Strait, have thriving illegal markets.

“Companies are trying to take over an area [of the sea] and then it’s up to them to use, ”he said. “It could be one or ten ships that are going to extract sand. This makes repression difficult. “

Mette Bendixen, assistant professor of environment and geography at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, said the hotspot in demand for sand will shift from Asia to Africa in the decades to come.

“The sand needs of Western countries have leveled out, the needs of Asian countries are on the rise, and the sand needs of African countries will increase in the next 10 years or so,” she said. “You might see the same horrible mining practices in Africa in a few years.”

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing

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