The insightful River sand mining focused South Asia meeting titled “Blood on the sand: dangers of riverbed mining in South Asia” was held on Dec 11, 2020. It was one of the off shoots of the IRW 2020 held dialogues on River Sand mining in India. One of the underlining theme that reverberated through the presentations was again that people on ground must have a role in governance of sand mining, considering the failure of governance of river sand mining by all concerned departments and governments. While the discussions brought out a number of scientific insights, the role of scientific studies and assessment was another key point emphasised by all.
The virtual meeting organised by the Third Pole was brilliantly moderated by Pakistan based journalist Zofeen Ebrahim. She underlined that the huge quantities of river bed mining going on in the region, plundering sand to cater to the historic high urbanisation is going to be a colossal environmental disaster. She also confessed that writing about it is even more problematic for journalists.
She narrated the story of Stela Paul working on investigative stories on sand mining. Once when Stela Paul was sitting on the banks of Krishna river talking to a few women in Andhra Pradesh, suddenly the arm of a crane nearby suddenly got flung in their direction. No one was hurt, fortunately, and in interrogation, the driver operating the crane confessed that he was paid by miners to do that. The slides[i] and recording of the webinar are available from the organisers on request.
Dipak Gyawali: Harvest, not mine: Rampant mafia are distorting democracy The first speaker on the panel, Dipak Gyawali, Nepal’s former water resources minister was described as a fire brand activist and involved in water sector in South Asia for four decades. As moderator Ebrahim noted, Gywali brought out grim, gloomy, scary picture of sand mining. He said that the iron triangle of officials, politicians and contractors have done nothing for the human miseries of common people. He talked about the physical, social and political consequences of the collection of river bed material, which he called as a rampant, booming and highly corrupt industry. Among the physical consequences include bank cutting and slope destabilization, leading to landslides affecting lives and habitat of the people, disturbance of aquatic life (he cited the Ph D thesis of one of his students showing how the aquatic species and their abundance has hugely reduced due to sand mining), river depth goes up, width decreases, groundwater table goes down.
Among the social consequences, Gyawali listed the increased vulnerability to landslides, deprivation of fisheries livelihood for thousands of people of marginal groups (in one basin alone the numbers went down from 25000 to 200), traditional irrigation systems of Nepal going defunct as the water diversion structures built with brushwood is no longer possible in deeper rivers, the village hand pumps nearby are going dry.
One of the key issue he emphasised was that while harvesting of riverbed material is required and beneficial, the mining is disastrous for the river, but the political economy of both are very different. Harvesting implies sustainability of aquatic life, social life, rivers and so on. Mining only focuses on maximization of profits and hence maximization of sand extraction. There are windfall benefits for the miners that are not even properly taxed. Proper taxing of the benefits from sand mining would not only bring it down, but the society will also be better off with that additional revenue. But today that windfall is going towards distorting our democracy. In Nepal these miners, known as crusher industrialists, either get themselves elected to local bodies or support their favourite candidates to help them win. Some of such elected representatives go up to the national level. The crusher guys are so powerful that they can get the inconvenient district officials transferred and get activists murdered as they did to Dilip Mahato about a year back. Unless we ban sand mining and go for harvesting that requires strong regulation and involvement of local communities, we are going to have a very very distorted mafia rule in place of democracy. Dipak also talked about, besides E-flows, also about S flows (spiritual flows) and N Flows (flows sufficient for navigation) in the rivers, which may also help curb sand mining as the rivers will have water most places at most times.
Siddharth Agarwal: Visible and invisible violence Next speaker, Siddharth Agarwal of Veditum (India), focused on violence of various kinds associated with sand mining and also spoke about the river dialogues held by India Rivers Week and learnings from them. He also said that we need to slowdown to get out of the consumption centric growth model we are in, without which it won’t be possible to move from mining to harvesting as Dipak Gyawali put it. The sharp gradient in the young Himalayas is a major reason for generation of large quantity of riverbed material, he noted. However, Prof Rajiv Sinha said during East Zone Dialogue of IRW 2020 that the cratonic sands of central India are more preferred for construction strength then the Himalayan sands. Parul Gupta said at the North Zone Dialogue that the current framework asks district officials how much sand can be mined, not how much sand should be mined in the district, when the river is absent in the framework.
Agarwal mentioned about the multiple boundaries that invisibilises so many realities, people involved, those who need to be held accountable and many sites and kinds of violence.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: Need EIAs, SIA and Public Hearings before clearances The next speaker, Syeda Rizwana Hasan from Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association, is a Goldman Environment Prize winner (2009) and Ramon Magsaysay award winner (2012) for her courageous leadership in judicial activism. She narrated how Dawki and Pain river used to be very popular with the tourists till 1990s and now had been completely destroyed due to sand mining. The river flowed with crystal clear water from India, then through Sylhet in Bangladesh. The mining began with manual process, then machines came and now they are using dynamite to blow of stones even below the depths in the riverbed. In the process, the entire river has dried up. The photo shows how even the picturesque rivers in tribal areas have been ravaged by miners, leaving behind muddy, polluted rivers that can no longer be used. The white sand mined here is used in the ceramic industry. The fish has all gone from these rivers and the tribal houses are always under risk of collapse.
She said that Bangladesh has a law on sand mining enacted in 2010 and rule framed in 2011. Under these, the district administration decides about the sand mahals to be leased out and maintains a list of the same. Hilly streams not supposed to be used for sand extraction, as per a gazette notification. There is no legal requirement for EIA or Env Clearance for sand mining in Bangladesh. The mobile courts sometimes jails the sand mining labourers, but never the miners. The law says that fisheries, biodiversity cannot be impacted, only certain methods can be used, erosion should not happen, extracted sand cannot be put on riverbeds or river banks, but all these do not get implemented since there is no one assessing the impacts. The Deputy commissioner who is in charge, does not have the expertise for this. The Dept of Env representative in the district committee hardly has any say in front of the elected representatives and members of parliament, etc. There is no information about the total sand extraction or revenue earned. The punishment is maximum two years jail or 50000 to 10 lakh takas. The miners prefer to pay the fine of 50000, if at all caught, rather than comply with the conditions. We need to make the EIA, SIA compulsory, with public hearings. We need transparent mechanism for monitoring of mining and transportation. There is nothing that has worked everywhere in South Asia, but there are some parts that have worked in some sections.
Vaqar Zakaria: What worked in Poonch River, didn’t in Ravi The speaker from Pakistan, Vaqar Zakaria, managing director of environmental consultancy company Hagler Bailly (13 years old) made a presentation giving the situation of Poonch River, happening possibly in the context of an IFC funded hydropower project. He also co-founded a Himalayan wildlife foundation started three decades back. Moderator asked him to suggest how can fast urbanizing country like Pakistan can regulate sand mining. He presented a case study, showing what has worked and where they are still struggling. He mentioned that the foundation set up Pakistan’s first river national park 12 years ago along, called Poonch River Mahseer national park with the government and communities, specifically planned to protect Mahseer fish.
He emphasised that the level of crisis that the rivers face is extreme, including from all the different interventions in addition to the sand mining: “I try to think how would I feel if I were a fish in the river. There is science, advocacy, strategy and action part of the work. The Poonch river that was 150 m wide has now become 500 m wide following sand mining. We introduced some clauses in the law for sustainable sand harvesting in protected area exclusively with community participation. An IFC (International Finance Corporation) funded Gulpur hydropower project came up in the area and under Biodiversity Action Plan for the same, a sustainable sand mining plan was made to ensure that Mahseer and other fish survived. We have possibly solved about 70% of the problem in case of Poonch River. This is a long term game. Get in Early. Do the advocacy to bring the politicians and people on your side, to own the river. Unless they own the river. Most important are the people living by the river. Taking them head on will not work, you will get crushed.”
He said, “We also tried to work similarly on River Ravi along Lahore city, but we have not succeeded. We tried to make the govt declare 42 km of river Ravi as National Park, it did not work… There is no sediment coming in the Ravi river from India due to upstream dams and Lahore is digging really deep to satisfy its sand demand… They are buying agricultural fields in the floodplains to dig out sand from depths upto 50 feet… However, civil society in Lahore is now fighting.” Vaqar emphasised that science and knowledge has to be the basis for planning, management, advocacy and strategy.
Marc Golchot: Coastal cities are digging their graves; Cost benefit analysis of river sand mining makes no sense Marc Golchot, head of the WWF-South East Asia, the final presenter, was quite impressive. Marc is a geographer specialised in the management of large tropical river systems with a focus on transboundary governance, flood management, fluvial geomorphology/ sediment management and resilience of deltas. He began by underlining that even if the fish in the river is not as charismatic as tiger or elephant, we need to understand its importance for the millions for whom this is the cheapest and only source of protein, a source that needs no land and consumes no water. He said 84% of freshwater biodiversity has been lost. It should alarm us that the sixth extinction is already happening in the rivers before it would happen in forests or seas. He said a number of the WWF’s 6-point Emergency Recovery Plan called “Bending the Freshwater Biodiversity Curve” are related to sand mining, including 4th (directly about sand mining), 1st, 2nd and 3rd (indirectly).
Marc said the role of the river is also like a conveyor belt to transport the riverbed material generated in mountains to the delta and is very important and sand mining affects that in major way. The sediments create the slope, depth, width and sinuosity of the rivers. Change in any will bring change in the river morphology. Here both quantity and quality of sediment (grain size) is important. Coarser granules are the smallest in volume of the sediment, but have more important role. Mekong basin, before 1990, would produce 160 MT (Million Tons) annually on average at its mouth. Only about 20-25 MT of it would be sand or coarser material. Today, extraction of sand from Mekong main stem is about 80 MT. Today, the dams are trapping lot of sediment, so hardly 5 MT sand is being produced and it is going down, while extraction rate is 80 MT and going up. You do not need an advanced degree in banking to understand that this system is not going to work. Most of the riverbed has lost an elevation of 2-3 mts in the past 20 years in the entire deltaic belt upto Vietnam.
In Mekong, we see for every mm of sea level rise, 10 mm of subsidence in delta. While we need to address climate change, we also need to address all these other reasons too urgently. Most (since they are over 50%) large urban centres are in fact located in these vulnerable sedimentary locations and they are the fasted growing centres. It is these cities that are creating huge proportion of demand for sand. They are clearly unsustainable. They are clearly digging their own grave. The most cost effective adaptation strategy at least in Asia is to stop this unsustainable sand mining in rivers. Not many people realize that mangroves need sand banks to grow and survive on the coasts. Without sand they have very little chance of grow or survive. Marc concluded that stopping unsustainable sand mining is central to our strategy and plan to protect freshwater biodiversity and deltas. We have to reduce demand, look for alternatives and realize that rivers are not bottomless sources of sand. The cost benefit analysis of current extraction of sand from rivers is completely nonsense.
Enlightening Q & A Answering questions, the speakers also made a number of illuminating points. For example, Vaqar said that in Poonch River, when we found that say the river produced 100 tons of sand we are taking 20 tons of sand, and we asked Kate Brown that we can take more, she said no, you should not take more than 25 since rest has to flow down for the rest of the river. Vaqar also highlighted how the Indus Treaty mandates that the upstream state must flush down the sediment collected behind hydropower run of the river dams.
Marc, however, said that if the reservoirs behind dam are longer than 20 km than it is very difficult to get the sediment get flushed out. There is major governance requirements. In places like France and Japan where it is relatively successful, it required huge governance capacity. The governance mechanisms in South and South East Asia are failing in carrying out even simple tasks, so this may be too much to ask. Moreover, flushing reservoirs requires lowering their levels, which has significant impacts on their productivity in the context of whatever benefits they are providing. Also, if you release sediments collected over more than two years, the sediment density becomes high and their release downstream is dangerous for life. If the density is above 50 gm per litre, it would be dangerous for the life downstream, you may kill everything for 20-30 km downstream. There is precedent of such a case.
Marc said there is Global aggregate association called GAIN[ii]. They see the impacts of sand mining as clear reputation risk and they are interested in working on it. They try to work on sustainability principles. But a lot more work is required in working to create a non profit platform for engagement with the industry. Marc also clarified that the impacts of sand mining take very long time to unfold. We have not yet felt the entire impact of the sand mining we have already done. It can take upto 50 years for full impacts to be realized since it is a complex web of impacts. He expressed concern about the capacity of our governance to address these. Marc also underlined that when we buy sand today we pay for the transportation and labour costs, but we do not pay for the sand. No value is attached to the sand taken out from the river. We need to bring the value of sand along with the services it is performing into its cost. Sand consumers say we do not mind if the cost goes up as long as it is for everyone. If the cost goes up, the consumers are going to be more careful in using sand. We are doing a project with the govt of Vietnam to start to implement such a strategy.
In answer to another question about changing international boundaries along Mekong, Marc said that the Mekong is on bed rock until the Lao capital, so the impacts here may not be as severe as other places. Further downstream from Lao to Cambodia border, the bed rock plunges down. Here the border is the thalweg[iii]. So the sand mining in these areas can lead to thalweg movement and hence can create controversies related to change in international boundary.
In response to a question, Rizwana said that the UN guiding principles being voluntary, can be used for documenting violations involved in sand mining, but not much beyond that. In response to another question, Rizwana said that certification by govt that the sand is ethically mined sounds problematic. If the govt had that capacity then why it cannot regulate the sector? Having deliberately failed to regulate the sector, to expect them to provide such credible certificate sounds problematic.
In Conclusion Moderator rightly thanked all the panelists in the end for a very engaging discussion and providing so much food for thought and action.
[iii] A line connecting the lowest points of successive cross-sections along the course of a valley or river.