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Sand War: A deadly war against mother Earth


The Manipur High Court on July 2, 2019, as an interim measure, has imposed a total ban on unauthorized sand mining, stone quarrying, and other polluting activities near all rivers of the state.

By Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh

            Sand is one of the most consumed natural resources on the planet. The United Nations estimates that the mining of sand and gravel may exceed 40 billion tons a year. Due to the high demand for sand, the planet’s resources are now being threatened; then-quarries of the World’s beaches are already in decline. Sand is used in our daily life in numerous ways. Houses, skyscrapers, bridges, airports, and sidewalks are all partially comprised of sand, making it an essential requirement for the construction booms happening around the World. Sand is also the source of silicon dioxide or silica, a mineral found in our wines, cleaning products, and the detergent, paper, toothpaste, and an astounding variety of other products we use on daily basis. Sand is also required for manufacturing the microchips inside our computers & smartphones. It’s almost like the air we breathe. But the sector swallowing up the most sand is the construction Industry. More than half of the World’s population now lives in cities. By 2030, the UN expects 60% of the people to live in urban settlements. Building and expanding cities require concrete and asphalt, both made with sand. We don’t think too much about it, but you can’t live without it

          In parts of the World, scarcity of sand has triggered smuggling bands or sand mafias- to plunder beaches and rivers for this highly prized commodity. A lot of people who control the sand mafia also control a lot of the construction materials business in Bombay as well as construction itself. They also control the administration through their political contacts so that just completes the whole Nature chain-right from extraction to construction, the profits in each part of it, the administration, and the police. As a result, the mafias are just adding to the pressure facing the world’s beaches. Sand war investigates the ramification of the depletion of sand as a resource, taking as around the world to witness this new gold rush first hand. Sand and gravel are the most extracted materials in the world. The UN believes that sand and gravel or aggregates account for up to 85% of all mining activity around the world measured in weight. While sand might seem like an abundant resource, it is being mined at a pace much faster than its natural renewal rate. A 2014 report by the UN estimated that globally more than 40 billion tons of sand and gravel are extracted every year. Singapore is just one example of a metropolis with a sand addiction. Between 1990 t0 2017, the city state’s population nearly doubled from three million to 5.6 million. Meanwhile, the city’s land area has grown through extensive land reclamation from 581.5 sq km in 1960 to 719 sq km in 2016- a 24% increase. Reclaiming 1sqkm of land from the sea cost up to 37.5 million cubic meters of sand is required. In 2016 alone, Singapore imported 35 million metric tons of sand. In July 2017, Cambodia banned all sales of sand to Singapore, citing environmental grounds. Malaysia in 1997, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam in 2007 had already put restrictions on sand export to Singapore. But these restrictions have given rise to a flourishing smuggling trade. So-called Sand-mafias have proliferated elsewhere. According to the Times of India, illegal sand mining is worth2.3 billion US dollars in Tamil Nadu alone. Not all kinds of sands are suitable for use in construction. Desert sand is considered too fine. As a result, sand is taken from beaches and dredged up from rivers, and seabed on an industrial scale adversely affecting the ecological system.

      Poyang Lake in China’s Jiangxi province is thought to be the World’s biggest sand mine. An estimated 236 million cubic meters of sand is taken out of the Lake every rear. Satellite images were taken by NASA show how this has changed the landscape of the northern reaches of Poyang Lake. NASA reported that sand mining affected the Lake’s ecological integrity by contributing to less predictable seasoned water fluctuations and to a series of recent low water events according to ecologists. Dredging sand from sea beds is destroying local flora and fauna. Mining of Ocean and beach sand is contributing to the erosion of beaches. In Indonesia, two dozen Islands are believed to have disappeared due to sand mining. Negative effects on the environment are unequivocal and are occurring around the World; the UN noted in its 2014 report. Meanwhile, policymakers have been slow to respond to the depletion of sand. The current level of political concern clearly does not match the urgency of the situation; the UN stated. The World is only slowly waking up to the fact that another finite resource is slipping through our fingers. In India sand is now almost as valuable as gold. A massive construction boom is driving demand for concrete- and sand is the essential ingredient. But a shortage of legal sand means there is plenty of unmet demand. Organized criminals are seizing the opportunities, pillaging millions of tons of sand from the nation’s beaches, rivers beds, and hillsides. Farmers in the US say the booming sand–mining Industry is threatening their future. The sand is vital to help extract oil and gas from deep underground. However, environmental activists say mining is having disastrous effects on the environment.

         In India, the sand mafia runs rampant. In Singapore, sand is more costly than oil and the desert city of Dubai needs to import sand from Australia. Dubai is a fairytale world. Nearly 6,000km to the southeast of Dubai is Singapore which stockpiles sand. It imports a massive amount of this resource and keeps it as a reserve, comparable to a strategic stock of oil. Singapore needs to continue to grow –the city-state has increased its landmass by 22% in the 50 years. Initially, it was easy. Its neighbors sold their sand but now it has been either stopped or banned. The entire international sand business became a political minefield. Populations tend to dislike the idea of selling pieces of their country for the purpose of expanding to another country especially if violence against them and their environment is involved. In some cases, the export went underground. According to anti-corruption watchdog “Transparency International”, in Cambodia, (the most corrupt country in South-East Asia) – contracts worth millions were still ongoing with official involvement.  In practice, companies dig sand in vulnerable natural areas and local fisherman loses their key capital: fish. Investigation reporting has shown that this happened in Vietnam also for the illegal export of sand to Singapore. The sand mafia also swept 24 Indonesian Islands off the map to sell the sand in Singapore. This caused a dispute over the exact location of the International border between Singapore and Indonesia like that of Sand war in 1963 between Algeria and Morocco. Today it becomes ever more obvious that the scarcity of sand across the World is spreading and affecting all of us. The growing sand shortage is putting sand in the machine called “Industrialized Civilization”. The shortage is already leading to deadly conflicts in some areas of the World.

      The effect of sand extraction in India is soil erosion, landslides, water table loss, infertility of farmland, disturbances of the ecosystem and marine life, beach disappearing- all the way to collapsing bridges. With more than 20 million inhabitants, Mumbai is also one of the 10 largest cities in the world with a huge appetite for sand by its Construction Industry. In 2010, Bombay High Court banned sand mining in Mumbai and Maharashtra. The Manipur High Court on 2nd July 2019, as an interim measure has imposed a total ban on unauthorized sand mining, stone quarrying, and other polluting activities near all rivers of the state. The only exception will be in cases where a license or lease is granted prior to such activities. The interim order was passed following a PIL by the Thoubal River Conservation Committee against the Government inaction to stop the deterioration of Thoubal River –caused by the mining of sand and stone from the riverbed recklessly. Even in our tiny state Manipur also, the sand business has become the talk of the day now, as we all witnessed, sand being brought from Dimapur or Moreh or from elsewhere for construction purposes at a very high cost. To reduce the demand for new sand, we need to evolve into a circular economy. Big cities in India crush many old buildings to make room for new but the debris ends up in landfills. In some countries, the use of primary materials is only allowed after the demolition waste is used up. In the Netherland, 90% of all demolition waste is recycled. Even poorer countries like Vietnam are now reusing demolition waste. We can build roads with a lot less sand by recycling plastic as a resource. We have to do that.  There’s so much demand for sand that river beds and beaches are being stripped bare, ocean beds denuded and landscapes devastated. The government is cracking down in response –which in turn has spawned a worldwide black market in the sand, and still, the amount of sand being mined worldwide is increasing- at a terrible cost to people and the planet. If we continue like this, we will dig a grave for ourselves and pay a very expensive price.

(Sanjenbam Jugeshwor Singh is a faculty member, NIELIT, Imphal. He can be reached at: [email protected])

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