Dramatic Photos Show How Sand Mining Threatens a Way of Life in Southeast Asia

Vietnam is a prime example of a little-known global threat: the mining of river sand to build the world’s booming cities.
By Vince Beiser, Photographs by Sim Chi Yin National Geographic 15 Mar 18;

One afternoon last year, Ha Thi Be, 67, was sitting with her son in her tiny coffee shop in the town of Hong Ngu, looking out on the lazy Tien River, the main branch of the Mekong in Vietnam. Suddenly, the ground beneath them gave way. The river bank was crumbling into the water. “We shouted out loud and ran,” she says. “It crashed with a huge sound, boom, boom, boom.”

Be and her son escaped unharmed, but the coffee shop and her nearby house were destroyed. “It took all of what we owned to build the house, and now it's all gone,” she sighs. Still, Be counts herself lucky. “If it had happened at night, I and my grandsons would have died. We used to sleep in that house,” she says.

The main causes of the collapse can be seen floating in many places on the Tien’s murky waters: dredging boats, using rackety pumps to raise from the river bed enormous quantities of sand. In recent years, that humble substance has become an astonishingly hot commodity. Sand is a key ingredient in concrete, the essential building material of Vietnam’s fast-growing cities. Demand for it is surging—and that is wreaking havoc not only on Vietnam’s rivers, but also on the all-important Mekong Delta.

In towns and villages all along the Mekong River and many other rivers around the country, banks undermined by dredging are collapsing into the water, taking with them farm fields, fish ponds, shops, and homes. In recent years, thousands of acres of rice farms have been lost, and at least 1,200 families have had to be relocated. Hundreds more have evacuated in-stream islands that were literally disappearing beneath their feet. Government officials estimate some 500,000 people in the Mekong Delta area alone need to be moved out of such landslide zones.

River sand mining isn’t only a problem for people: It also muddies waters and scours riverbeds, killing the fish, plants, and other organisms that live there. “When I was a child, we'd catch fish and snails to eat,” recalls Ha Thi Be. “Since the sand dredges came, the fish and snails are no more.”

Vietnam is far from the only place where sand mining is inflicting such damage. All over the developing world, cities are growing at a furious pace, devouring sand in unprecedented quantities. The number of Vietnamese living in cities has doubled in the last twenty years, to some 32 million. Worldwide, the urban population is rising by about 65 million people annually; that’s the equivalent of adding eight New York Cities to the planet every single year. Nearly 50 billion tons of sand and gravel is extracted annually to create all the concrete office towers, apartment blocks, highways, and airports those people need. (Some Vietnamese sand is also sold to nearby Singapore, which uses gargantuan amounts to build artificial land.)

Why, you might ask, don’t we simply mine sand from the Sahara and other deserts? The answer is desert sand doesn’t work in concrete—the wind-eroded grains are too smooth and rounded. As a result, from China to Jamaica, from Liberia to India, sand miners are plundering riverbeds, floodplains, and beaches for the precious grains.

In Vietnam, sand mining poses an additional danger: It’s contributing to the slow-motion disappearance of the Mekong Delta, home to 20 million people and source of half of all the country’s food and much of the rice that feeds the rest of southeast Asia.

Climate change-induced sea level rise is one reason the delta is losing the equivalent of one and a half football fields of land every day. But another, researchers believe, is that people are robbing the delta of its sand.

For centuries, the delta has been replenished by sediment carried down from the mountains of central Asia by the Mekong River. But in recent years, in each of the several countries along its course, miners have begun pulling huge quantities of sand from the riverbed. According to a 2013 study by three French researchers, some 50 million tons of sand were extracted in 2011 alone—enough to cover the city of Denver two inches deep. Meanwhile, five major dams have been built in recent years on the Mekong and another 12 are slated for construction on the Mekong in China, Laos, and Cambodia. The dams further diminish the flow of sediment to the delta.

In other words, while natural erosion of the delta continues, its natural replenishment does not. “The sediment flow has been halved,” says Marc Goichot, a researcher with the World Wildlife Federation’s Greater Mekong Programme. At this rate, he says, nearly half the delta will be wiped out by the end of this century.

The problem is made more complicated by the fact that much of Vietnam’s sand mining is completely unregulated and illegal. The sand trade is so lucrative that it has spawned a thriving black market, with hundreds of unlicensed boats plying the rivers. In 2016 alone, Vietnamese police caught nearly 3,000 people dredging without permits or in protected areas around the country.

Many of the miners—legal and otherwise—are ordinary Vietnamese just trying to make a living. Some of them bring their families along on their boats as they travel up and down the rivers.

Nguyen Van Tu, 39, used to mine sand from the Tien near Ha Thi Be’s home town, until police cracked down. “The business was so good,” he says. At times he pulled in as much as $13,000 US per month. “Such easy money. Think, you just suck sand out, and you got money. Simple.”

Vietnamese officials regularly declare their determination to end illegal sand mining—but as in many other countries, some of them prefer taking a cut of the action to shutting it down. In 2013, three local government officials in the Hong Ngu area were charged with taking bribes in exchange for ignoring illegal sand mining on the Tien River. Last March, Deputy Prime Minister Trương Hòa Bình acknowledged that large-scale illegal sand mining continues partly because local administrations have “loosened their management, covered up and offered protection” to the miners.

In some cases, illegal miners have resorted to violence to keep their businesses going. In India and other countries, “sand mafias” have assaulted and even murdered police officers, environmentalists, journalists and others who got in their way. During a crackdown in Vietnam last spring, according to local media, illegal miners tried to sink a police boat by dumping sand onto it.

Fed up with official inaction, dozens of Vietnamese fishers took matters into their own hands last year, attacking sand miners they blamed for destroying their livelihoods. Last June, scuffles between miners and villagers put two people in the hospital.

As the tensions rise, the Mekong Delta keeps eroding—and so does the ground beneath the feet of villagers like Ha Thi Be.