Given the significance of natural resources such as land, rivers, and coastal areas to the livelihoods, income and food security of millions of people around the world, ensuring their long-term sustainability is of critical importance. However, while the world is already faced with the ominous challenges caused by climate change, hunger and unemployment, another disaster; illegal sand mining which is also known as sand poaching, looms in the background.
Sand, a scarce renewable natural resource created from rock, is arguably the second most important natural resource after water. Sand derives its importance from having no other substitutes in many industrial processes and being a critical component of many of the world’s manufacturing industries, including construction, glass factories, land reclamation, cars, cleaning detergents, pottery, and silicon manufacture for computer chips, cellphones, and other electronic gadgets. Unfortunately, for these industrial processes, only river and coastal sand are suitable while desert sand cannot be used because of the finer and more rounded nature of its grains.
Over the years, as industrialization and manufacturing industries have grown, so has the demand for sand and the sand extraction industry. However, the growth in the sand industry is not without its own challenges – it is riddled with the emergence of a parallel illegal sand mining industry that excavates sand without the required permits, at undesignated areas, using whatever methods are available and in whatever quantities they can find. It is often highlighted that although sand is plentiful, its demand may in fact be greater than its supply. Thus, it is this illegal sand mining activities whose practices threaten the sustainability of the sand resource itself and poses many negative socioeconomic and environmental challenges, that now supplies a significant proportion of the global sand supplies, and unchecked, may lead to a serious global crisis.
Sand poaching is a global challenge
Illegal sand mining is a global phenomenon – happening irrespective of legislation to regulate and monitor sand mining. It has been reported in Asia, China, Indonesia, India, Singapore, and many African countries including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya, and it is occurring anywhere that sand can be found, including riverbeds, coastal areas, and on plain land surfaces, except deserts which have sand that is unsuitable for construction. But what exactly is driving illegal sand harvesting activities around the world especially in Africa?
A close look at some African countries’ experiences below reveals that for many, it is a matter of immediate survival versus conservation for future generations.
Kenya is facing a depletion of its sand reserves and the destruction of its ecosystems through violent cartels allegedly working with some prominent people in the state. The main driver of the sand mining trade is economic. Rural communities find themselves with no other recourse for improving their livelihood to prevent being plunged into abject poverty. In these communities, because higher education is not prioritized and there are limited means of formal employment, sand mining becomes the only means of making a living. Interestingly enough, the fact that sand is a natural resource means people feel it is free for all. Instead of engaging in criminal activities, they prefer to make an honest wage utilizing that God has provided. In Kenya, legislation has proven a weak control in terms of sand mining and as long as the government’s response is not firm and intentional, the illegal trade will continue.
In Morocco, it is of note that half the sand utilized in its construction industry is illegally mined from the country’s various coastland areas. These areas bear the marks of savage extraction with holes marring the landscape and a complete devastation of various ecosystems.
As in other countries, legislation appears to be very weak. Even where sand mining is done legally, illegal behavior persists with miners extracting up to ten times more than they are supposed to. Again, regulations fall short of being an adequate deterrent and are poorly implemented and enforced.
South Africa has tried to strike a balance between supporting the livelihoods of communities that utilize sand mining to make a living and sustainably protecting the environment. Unfortunately, regulation of the trade has proved complicated, with no clear demarcation of who should be enforcing compliance, and serious limitations in terms of urgency, finances and human capital to carry out regulation work.
The illegal sand mining industry has proved lucrative with illegal sand reportedly being used in both private and publicly funded projects. Besides destroying the environment, the trade is also proving detrimental to road infrastructure that is not equipped to handle the number and size of trucks transporting sand. For many local residents though, it appears that the pollution and ecological damage are consequences that they can live with, as long as they make enough income to survive.
As in Kenya, a criminal element is attached to the sand mining trade. These supposed investors mine and illegally ship sand on a global black market. The laws governing sand extraction have various loopholes that limit the amount of regulation possible. Small scale miners complain that they are the ones targeted by the law that ultimately gives free reign to large scale miners. The lack of adequate human capital at local level for enforcement of available laws also means that collusion and corrupt behavior are rampant.
The major drivers
Because sand is the main constituent of concrete, the booming construction industry, spurred by increased urbanization and industrialization, is the main driver of increased sand demand. As observed from the countries highlighted above, with unemployment rates staggeringly high, and the laws and penalties governing sand extraction seemingly lax, illegal sand mining creates income generating opportunities for many unemployed people while giving construction companies access to large quantities of sand, a major input, at a very low cost. But illegal sand harvesting activities do not come cheap, they carry with them a high cost, probably a higher cost to the society and environment than the gains to the industry players involved.
The true costs of illegal sand harvesting
The main attributes of illegal sand mining include using any possible and quick means of sand mining and harvesting of large, unregulated quantities of sand in undesignated sand sites. These unregulated illegal activities have led to many undesirable and negative socio-economic and environmental consequences.
Illegal sand mining on plain land surfaces is in direct competition with any other land use activity, with sand harvesting being conducted on any land type and anywhere from forest areas, urban and rural areas, close to residential areas, on farmland, and even gravesites. Hence, illegal sand mining is already causing conflict with affected land users. Illegal sand harvesting is leading to the destruction of vegetation, forests and forest ecosystems, land degradation, increased erosion, loss of biodiversity. Farmlands are being invaded, leading to the destruction of agricultural land. Therefore, while creating employment for a few, sand mining activities are also causing long-term damages to the sources of livelihoods of many households dependent on farming and forests for livelihood. Illegal sand mining activities leave uncovered open pits and ditches, which endanger both humans and animals, increase susceptibility to flooding and waterborne diseases, and destroy the landscape. Examples of these devastating effects have been reported in Indonesia where 24 islands disappeared, in Kenya with flash flooding and bleeding of rivers dry in South Africa.
On riverbeds and coastal areas, illegal sand harvesting is also causing massive, dire, and largely irreparable environmental and socioeconomic damages. Riverbanks are eroded, rivers are polluted, riverbeds are deepened, river-mouths are widened, and river ecosystems are destroyed. Consequently, the risk of flooding is increased, habitats are being destroyed and river-based livelihoods are under threat, creating conflict with affected communities. In coastal areas, rampant sand harvesting has destroyed beautiful beach landscapes, and again causing long-term damages to the sources of livelihoods dependent on these ecosystems.
A major long-term consequence, which may seem unimaginable, is that sand, particularly the river and coastal sand that is highly in demand, is increasingly becoming scarce and this scarcity will increase in the future. Presently, it is already reported that the more than 40 billion tons of sand harvested globally annually, will outstrip supply. Thus, ensuring its sustainable exploitation is key for many economies to ensure their economic viability of industries in the future.
A key part of the solution will come from the issue of illegal sand harvesting receiving greater attention from policy makers, regulators, and society. This would raise awareness and aid in the enactment and enforcement of stricter regulations regarding (illegal) sand harvesting. Firstly, public awareness campaigns should be used to raise awareness on the harmful impacts of illegal sand harvesting. Secondly, regulators could be tasked with identifying and marking safe sand harvesting sites from which sand miners can mine, to ensure that monitoring can be done. Thereafter, sand harvesters should be allowed to obtain sand permits, which they can only use on the marked sand sites. To deter offenders, stricter penalties such as hefty fines should then be enforced for illegal sand harvesting. Also, a reward system can be used to attract whistleblowers. With all these regulatory measures in place, it is also critical for the damage already done to the environment to be assessed and corrected where possible. Done right, sand harvesting can be conducted in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner that will benefit society at large. Without regulations or proper enforcement, the economy is losing out on potential revenue from the sand resource, which, if corrected, this revenue can be directed towards improving society. All this, alongside efforts to find alternatives to replace sand in the various manufacturing industries where it is used.
Ultimately however, no solutions would be complete without considering the immediate human impact. At the bottom of the food chain of the various criminal syndicates and illegal sand miners are simple people who are trying to earn an “honest” wage. Each day they are able to dig is a day they put food on the table. For them, concern for the environment or ecosystems is secondary, as they are trying to survive. How do governments balance the need of gainful employment for these people and the need to preserve the environment for future generations? Programs that actively seek to sustainably extract sand or even to rehabilitate areas that have been affected can be utilized as a means of providing employment while protecting the environment. Training needs to be provided, funding needs to be sourced and communities actively participating in preserving a future for the next generation.
In short, the negative impacts of illegal sand harvesting are far-reaching, leading to severe degradation of natural resources and eroding the source of livelihoods of millions dependent on these resources., while also threating to make the resource itself extinct. Therefore, urgent attention from everyone including policy makers, society, and regulators is needed. With stronger regulations and enforcement, the crisis that could result from this human activity of illegal sand harvesting could be averted early and the damage already caused could be corrected.