Sand mining threatens ways of life, from Cambodia to Nigeria

A global building boom is driving a high demand for sand, and some of it is getting sourced from sensitive river systems that people rely on for traditional uses like fishing.
VINCE BEISER National Geographic 23 Apr 19;

If you were disturbed by the damage done to Cambodian coastal fisheries by the industrial-scale dredging of sand for sale to Singapore, as shown in the new documentary short “The Lost World,” there’s good news: the practice has largely been shut down in Koh Kong, the area featured in the film. The bad news is that environmentally destructive sand mining continues in other parts of Cambodia, throughout Southeast Asia, and in fact around the world.

Since the mid-’00s, fishers in villages in the mangrove-rich estuaries of Koh Kong province have complained that rampant sand mining was wiping out the crabs and fish that provide their living. Many families have had to send members to work in garment factories in the distant capital of Phnom Penh, or have simply moved away. The dredging also threatened endangered native dolphins, turtles, and otters. Much of the sand was sold to Singapore, which uses titanic quantities of the material for its ongoing effort to bulk up its tiny territory with artificial land. The city-state has “reclaimed” some 140 square kilometers of land from the sea since 1965.

In 2015, Mother Nature, a feisty Cambodian environmental group, launched a campaign to rein in the dredging, petitioning government officials and even blockading and boarding the ships. Three activists were jailed for ten months on charges of threatening to damage the dredging boats, drawing foreign press attention. Meanwhile, the group brought to light United Nations trade data showing that Cambodia had been massively under-reporting the amount of sand being exported to Singapore.

Embarrassed by the mounting local and international attention on the issue, in late 2016 the Phnom Penh government shut down sand dredging for export in the Koh Kong area. The following year, citing environmental concerns, they banned all sand exports to Singapore—a step many other nearby countries have also taken in recent years. Just last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen reiterated his determination to crack down on “anarchic” sand dredging.

Long-term impact?

A limited amount of sand dredging is still permitted in the Koh Kong area for domestic use; sand is a key ingredient in concrete, and Cambodia’s booming cities need lots of it. But most of the heavy machinery that had been churning up Koh Kong’s estuaries is now idled, says Alex Gonzalez-Johnston, a co-founder of Mother Nature. “Fish catches have gone up steadily since the large-scale dredging ended,” he says.

“Having said that, it remains to be seen what the long-term impacts on the mangrove ecosystem will be after the extraction of so much sand,” says Gonzalez-Johnston. People are still leaving the area, unable to make ends meet from fishing and crabbing, says Kalyanee Mam, producer of “The Lost World.”

A global issue

Though the pressure on Koh Kong has been lifted—at least for now—massive-scale sand mining continues elsewhere across Southeast Asia. Dredging on the Mekong and other waterways in Cambodia and Laos is causing river banks to collapse, environmentalists charge, dragging down crop fields and even houses. Farmers in Myanmar say the same thing is happening along the Ayeyarwady River. In Malaysia, villagers complain that sand mining is damaging two key rivers.

In Vietnam, river dredging is also exacerbating the erosion of the Mekong Delta; starved of replenishing sediment by sand miners and dams, the delta is shrinking at the rate of a football field and a half every day.

The hunger for sand, in fact, is wreaking similar havoc on rivers, lakes, and coastal regions in dozens of fast-developing countries from China to Nigeria.

The demand for Cambodia’s sand certainly won’t slacken any time soon. In addition to its own city-building needs, there are potential customers in the large-scale land reclamation projects underway all over eastern Asia. Hong Kong is just getting started on an $80 billion initiative to create at least 2,500 hectares of artificial islands—which will be built largely with imported sand.

It’s perhaps little wonder that Mam reports villagers in Koh Kong are hardly resting easy. “All the equipment and materials used for sand dredging still remains in this area, and has not been removed,” she says. Local fishers she’s in touch with, she adds, “are very afraid dredging might resume on a large scale in the future.”