Explained | Effects of illegal sand mining

sand mining
In 2019, demand for sand reached 50 billion tonnes per year. Photo: AFP

The marine dredging industry is digging up six billion tonnes per year, the equivalent of more than one million dump trucks per day, according to a report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). This is significantly impacting biodiversity and coastal communities. 

Data analysed for the years 2012-19 shows the scale of dredging is growing. 

The world is approaching the natural replenishment rate of 10 to 16 billion tonnes per year which is needed by rivers to maintain coastal and marine ecosystem structure and function. 

This is especially concerning for regions where dredging is more intense and extraction already substantially surpasses the sediment budget from land to sea. 

How is it tracked?

• Marine Sand Watch — the first-ever global data platform on sand and other sediment extraction — tracks and monitors dredging activities of sand, clay, silt, gravel, and rock in the world’s marine environment, including hotspots like the North Sea, South East Asia, and the East Coast of the United States.

• Developed by GRID-Geneva, a centre for analytics within the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the platform uses Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals from vessels and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to identify the operations of dredging vessels. 

• The platform provides information on areas used for sand extraction (sand concessions), areas of capital and maintenance dredging, sand trading ports/hubs, number of vessels and operators, and extraction of sediment and other types of activities by countries with Exclusive Economic Zones. 

• The Marine Sand Watch cannot yet detect artisanal and very small-scale mining along very shallow coastlines, despite its intensity in some regions.

Sand is world’s second-most exploited resource

• Sand, gravel, crushed stone and aggregates (sand resources) are the second-most exploited natural resource in the world after water, earning it the nickname “the new gold”.

• Sand has been extracted from beaches, coastal dunes and watercourses at an accelerating pace in the past 20 years, with the two leading drivers being sand’s use as aggregate in concrete, and for beach reconstruction to protect coastal property. 

• In 2019, demand for sand reached 50 billion tonnes per year. Fifty billion tonnes of sand is enough to build a wall 27 metres wide and 27 metres high around planet Earth.

• Sand is critical to economic development, needed to produce concrete and build vital infrastructure ranging from homes and roads to hospitals. Sand is the key raw material in the concrete, asphalt and glass that build our infrastructure.

• By providing habitats and breeding grounds for diverse flora and fauna, sand also plays a vital function in supporting biodiversity, including marine plants that act as carbon sinks or filter water. 

• The resource is crucial to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and tackling the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. 

• However, it is being used faster than it can be naturally replenished, so its responsible management is crucial.

• Despite the strategic importance of sand, its extraction, sourcing, use, and management remain largely ungoverned in many regions of the world.

• International practices and regulatory frameworks vary widely. Some countries – including Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia – have banned marine sand export in the last 20 years, while others lack any legislation and/or effective monitoring programmes.

Impacts of sand mining

• Sand mining causes environmental, social and economic damages worldwide.

• Current rates of sand extraction exceed natural replenishment rates, leaving mined ecosystems very slow or even unable to recover. Sand mining changes how waterways flow and flood, threatens water security and lowers groundwater capacity, in turn raising water costs for local communities. 

• It causes habitat loss and reduced biodiversity (especially for aquatic ecosystems), also contributing to climate change through the sand extraction process. 

• The resulting erosion removes protection against coastal hazards, such as hurricanes, and extreme waves, and threatens critical infrastructure such as roads and railways. Sand extraction also damages coastal scenery which is necessary for tourism.

• Illegal mining and trade create an atmosphere of corruption in many coastal societies, leading to the creation of violent social groups (sand mafias).

• Sand extraction puts coastal and seabed ecosystems at risk, including marine biodiversity affected by water turbidity and changes in nutrient availability and noise pollution. 

• Coastal or near-shore extraction can also affect the salinisation of aquifers and future tourist development.

Regulation of sand mining in India

• Sand is a minor mineral under Section 3(e) of the Mines and Minerals (Development & Regulation) Act, 1957 (MMDR Act). 

• Section 15 of the MMDR Act empowers the state governments for making rules for regulating the grant of quarry leases, mining leases or other mineral concessions in respect of minor minerals and for purposes connected therewith. 

• Hence, the regulation of minor minerals comes under the legislative and administrative domain of the state governments.

• Section 23C of the MMDR Act empowers the state governments to make rules for preventing illegal mining, transportation and storage of minerals and for the purposes connected therewith. 

• The ministry of mines has prepared a ‘Sand Mining Framework’ in consultation with mining departments of the states incorporating best practices amongst states with the objectives of sustainability, availability, affordability and transparency in sand mining. 

• The ‘Sand Mining Framework’ has been circulated to all state governments for necessary action. Moreover, the ministry of environment, forest & climate change has issued Sustainable Sand Mining Management Guidelines, 2016 which addresses the issues relating to regulation of sand mining.

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