Illegal sand mining, a scourge on environmental consciousness

Illegal sand mining seems like a small issue when we compare it to all the other environmental issues facing us today. After all sand is every where and costs nothing. A few holes in the river bank, yes it’s unsightly and causes a little bit of damage. Nothing by comparison to the onslaught of rhinos or other wild life you may say. Sadly it hides a far greater issue. Walking down the coast I have seen endless evidence of illegal sand mining in most of our rivers that have sand.

The truth is that sand mining is a bigger threat to the environment than all the wild life trafficking put together and its impact is far reaching and ultimately devastating. Sand mining accounts for 85% of all mining. It is a global industry worth 70 billion US dollars world wide. It is also very difficult to quantify accurately. Regulated mineral sand mining is easily verified as are legal mines for sand extraction. Guestimates are made using the world cement consumption figures, factor in land reclamation, land fill, roads and beach replenishment for tourism and environmental safe guards and the figure is huge. Sand is the most trafficked commodity in the world today. China has used more sand in the last 10 years then the United States used in the previous century, Dubai has used all its available sand and has been importing it from Australia for years.

The problem with sand is not all sand is equal. Desert sand is formed by wind action, it is too rounded and not suitable for construction, This leaves two other sources, marine; either dredged out the sea or removed from the beaches and dunes. This requires vast amounts of fresh water to wash out the salt. The other source being out of rivers or alluvial flood plains.

Marine mining
The removal of sand from beaches results in
• the destruction of habitat for crustaceans, molluscs and other organisms.
• The destruction of dunes that provide a buffer against storm surges along the coast
• Removal of beach sand also reduces the effects of wave action and storm surge as the sand helps to remove storm and wave energy before it impacts on coastal development destroying infrastructure.
The removal of sand from the sea bed results in
• The altering of sea currents
• Destruction of marine feeding zones
• Destruction of reefs due to the fine cloud of tailing’s
• A change in the marine Eco-system
• A negative impact on fish stocks
It also results in an increase in the consumption of fresh water to clean the sand.

Inland sand mining
Results in
• The deepening of valley floors and stream beds, this in turn causes a lowering of the water table
• Undercutting of river banks and erosion
• Destruction of vegetation
• Increased vehicle traffic and compaction of soils
• On recovery an increase in alien invasive species
• Increased pollution due to fuel spills and human activity
• A quickening stream flow increasing erosion
• Destruction of aquatic ecosystems
• Sand is no longer deposited back on the coast increasing coastal destruction
• Destruction of habitat
• Sand also acts as a sponge allowing the replenishment of water tables

In South Africa, sand is one of our most valuable natural resources. It is already estimated that we are consuming twice as much sand as our rivers can produce. As the process of sand rejuvenation takes place over hundreds of thousands of years it cannot be regarded as renewable. Dam’s have already reduced sand flow in rivers by one third. Along the Durban coast, lack of sand being deposited on the coast is already resulting in infrastructure along the coast being damaged.

South Africa seems to have a very lax attitude to sand mining and is not doing nearly enough to control and regulate it. Even sand extraction with permits is being widely abused, Current legislation states that for a mine less than 1.5 ha only an environmental plan is needed. Unfortunately its up to the local authorities to see that this is carried out and enforced. The permit is cheap, easy to get, prone to massive corruption and rehabilitation is almost never enforced. After two years the mine moves to the next block and the rape occurs all over again. In the governments wisdom it is hoping to increase the mine size to 5 ha. Unfortunately with out adequate protection, legislation and control it is doomed to be catastrophic for the environment. Small mines do not have to produce an environmental impact study. The issuing department (Department mineral resources) also happens to be the same department that polices it. No problem there then.

We cannot continue to destroy our water sources and coasts for the sake of a few dollars. It is estimated that if the government regulated it efficiently we could afford free education for all in South Africa, paid for by sand mining. Of all the worlds water’ only 3% is fresh and only 1% is suitable for consumption. Sadly, we have already polluted half of that. So the next time you see that bakkie loading up sand at the river, understand they may as well be poaching rhino or elephant. If it were a rhino, most of us would be outraged. Poaching sand is ultimately worse.

United Nations Environmental Programme
Governance of Africa’s Resources programme (policy briefing 116)
European Geosciences Union (general assembly 2009)
Council for Scientific and Industrial Research

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