Sand Mining Part 2: The Story of a Conflict Mineral

April 17, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
What happened to the River Manimala?” I asked “Sand mafia,” Thambichan answered.

The expanding economies of Asia, Africa and the Middle East are placing such great  demands on global sand supplies that scarcity could soon prove to be  an hyperbole. The sand spoken of here is that used for fracking, construction and industrial processes, e.g. glass and silicone manufacture.

In the first part of this series sand mining in the United States was discussed. Fracking sands were highlighted, along with growing demand and decreasing supplies. Environmental impacts were identified.

Mining operations outside the U.S., in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, pose a different set of problems, although the market driver for sand worldwide is much the same–urbanization.

According to the UN, cities are expanding at an historic rate. Half the world’s population now lives in an urban area. Since 1950, city populations have grown by 400 percent. Today there are 4 billion metropolitans.

Over the next 30 years, another 2.5 billion will be moving in. Serving their needs will require concrete—a lot of it. Housing, office and retail spaces, roads, schools, hospitals, stadiums and more all require  sand.

Global demand for mined materials stands today between 47 to 59 billion tons. Gravel and sand comprise 68 to 85 percent of the total. As people move into cities, the demand for sand and aggregates moves with them.

The explosive growth of the global sand market comes with consequences. Mining’s impact on the environment and society is surprising—more than that it is disturbing. What I hope to accomplish, in some small way, with this series on sand mining is to suggest that: sand is not just sand, after all.

In list form, the environmental consequences of sand mining in countries like India, China, Vietnam and Sierra Leone may appear little different from those in the U.S. Respiratory problems stemming from air born particulates, stressed bridges and roads from the increased hauling of heavy loads between the mines, fracking fields and construction sites, increased demand for gasoline and diesel fuels that emit carbon and lead to more drilling, the loss of native flora and fauna and so on.

To equate the environmental experiences of these nations to the U.S. is to compare the common cold to cancer. Both can rightly be termed an illness; but, they are hardly comparable.

I am not suggesting that the environmental consequences of sand mining in the U.S. are any less deserving of consideration or solution. I am simply saying that sand mining in other regions of the world are orders of magnitude more destructive and complicated–their solution more problematic.

As will be explained shortly, sand mining in Asia and Africa is more violent and violative of societal order than in the U.S. A seemingly ubiquitous and benign material, sand in some nations is spoken of in terms reserved for illicit trades in: drugs, diamonds and minerals.

I began this series relaying a friend’s response to a cordial inquiry about a recent visit to Wisconsin. She expressed surprise that some neighbor were selling or leasing farmland to a frac sand miner operating in the Dairy State. Her Uncle Zeke, she said, knew a farm owner who had just sold 130 acres to the mining company for a considerable premium above its appraised agricultural value.

Compare her response to why Thambichan was asked about the Manimala River:

 I was shocked: The great river had become a trickle. In a few places it had pooled into puddles big enough for people to wash their clothes. Otherwise it was barren, the stone steps now leading to a gouge-out ravine of boulders baking in the sun.

Others commented: no one listened when…warned of the dangers of sand  mining. When the monsoons came, the water whooshed away…ordinary wells ran dry…tube wells were dug…now some of those are running dry…local rice paddies were long gone…several major bridges faced collapse…the loss of sand…weakened foundations.

Image RemovedFigure 1 illustrates just how fast the demand of nations around the world has grown since 2004, with India, China and other nations far outstripping the U.S.  and Europe.

Countries included in the category other, in the Figure, might surprise you. Coals to Newcastle is yesterday’s news. Today, it is sand to the United Arab Emirates..

The UAE imported $456 million worth of sand, stone and gravel in 2014. It turns out the sands of Arabia are too fine to be  good for anything other than lying there.

All 2,722 feet of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper was built using sand carted from Australia. According to the Economist:

Sand is being extracted at a far greater rate than…it is naturally replenished…depletion of existing reserves is damaging the environment.

Dredging in rivers and seas pollutes natural habitats, affecting local fishing and farming industries. Mining in China’s Poyang Lake…is thought to have lowered water levels.

Beaches in Morocco and the Caribbean have been stripped of sand, lowering their capacity to absorb stormy weather.

Thambichan, her family and neighbors in the Indian village on the Manimala River are not alone in suffering the environmental and economic consequences  of sand mining.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, world cement production nearly tripled between 1994 and 2012, when it totaled 3.7 billion metric tons. China alone built 90,000 miles of road in 2013; and, its demand for cement has risen by 437.5 percent in just 20 years.

If these numbers don’t impress, then maybe this will: in the past few years, China has used more cement than the U.S. used in the entire 20th century.

Big numbers are hard for me to wrap my head around; so, when size matters, I think in visuals.

  • William McKinley was president when the 20th century began and William Clinton when it ended.
  • America’s population tripled in the century–topping out at around 281 million.
  • The urban population went from 28 percent in 1910 to 80 percent in 2000.
  • The U.S. fought two world wars, lesser but no less deadly conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, as well as clandestine operations. It spent billions to  rebuild the places it was responsible for blowing up.
  • Think planes, trains and automobiles—runways, rails and roads.
  • The U.S. shifted from an agricultural to an industrial economy.
  • The nation started the century as the world’s largest economy, a 100 years later it remains.
  • Even during the Great Depression, the nation constructed wonders of a modern age like the Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building; it is still building them today, e.g. Trump Tower Chicago.

For a hundred years, the U.S. stood atop other nations looking down on cities made largely of concrete. In the midst of wars when steel grew scarce and time of the essence, ships fabricated of concrete were built, showing how versatile this material, made largely of sand and gravel, can be.

What the U.S. did in decades, China did in single years. Years in which the U.S.  and other countries continued to grow their economies, demanding ever more materials.

The price for a measure of sand is set by supply and demand, just as it is for any commodity. Prices will remain high far into the future, as demand shows little evidence of retreat and supplies are drawn down faster than nature can replenish them.

This situation begins to exhibit all the signs of a zero-sum game that can only end with the environment and economic-well-being the losers. In the meantime, there is money to be made—legally or otherwise.

Sand trading is a lucrative business. Unlike the sand miner in Wisconsin, who bought 130 acres of prime agricultural land from Uncle Zeke’s friend, the sand markets in China, India, Sierra Leone and elsewhere resemble more the gold fields of Alaska.

Anyone with a shovel, a basket, access to a beach or river bottom and indifferent or dismissive of mining laws is now a sand miner and merchant. From Rollo Romig’s exceptional account of sand mining in India:

 He told me he started sand mining around 2002, to raise money for a new business. They worked in groups of four or more….Some would pilot the rowboat and other would dive as deep as 15 feet to fill their baskets with sand.

 His previous job, at a bank, paid 400 rupees a day, roughly $5. A good night’s work mining sand earned him 2,000 rupees.

Another Indian miner makes about $16 for his 200 dives a day–more than the workers up top in the boats—more than he can make elsewhere. He’s been doing it for 16 years but thinks the river’s sand will soon be mined out.

When I started, we only had to go down 20 feet…Now it’s 40. We can only dive [to] 50 feet.

A Laotian woman, making $10 a day working for a dredging company, knows gouging sand from the river threatens the lives of the hundreds of thousands dependent upon its waters for the food they grow and the fish they catch.

Whatever else may be said of it, sand mining is, in the aggregate, big business. Individuals and small partnership groups of friends and neighbors are not the only ones mining for profits. With four boats and a crew of 12, a small miner working a river in China admits to dredging up 850 cubic meters of sand a day.

At today’s exchange rate, he grosses a bit over $11,000 USD any day he works; he admits to annual earnings of $225,000 USD. Bigger competitors—working that same river– can suck up 5,000 or more cubic meters a day. Using the same 90 CNY/cu. meter rate, that amounts to over $65,000 per boat load/day.

Not a bad day’s take for the boat owner–not so good, perhsps, for the river, the environment and others living and working along it. Still, it is nothing compared  to what India’s sand mafia is estimated to be raking in.

According to the Times of India, the sand mafia, the one Thambichan blamed for the virtual draining of the Manimala River–hauls in around $2.3 billion a year. That’s a lot of sand–enough to fill 50,000 lorry loads a day.* Tons that will be smuggled into nearby states, according to the Economist and other sources.

Given the very large sums of money involved and the promise of increasingly higher prices for a diminishingly available resource, an illicit trade in sand should not surprise. Both surprising and disturbing is how widespread the illegal mining operations are and the violence they provoke. Reading the accounts conjures pictures of Capone’s Chicago in the 1930s and drug cartels today in Ciudad Juárez.

There is very little I could add to make the headlines and stories of violence and corruption to make them any more real. The accounts speak for themselves.

Those that follow are merely illustrative of the situation—not exhaustive of it. Others can easily be called up–simply click on illegal sand mining.

Today criminal gangs in at least a dozen countries, from Jamaica to Nigeria, dredge up tons of the stuff every year to sell on the black market.  (Wired)

One of Israel’s most notorious gangsters, a man allegedly involved in a spate of recent car bombings, got his start stealing sand from public beaches. (Wired)

 Dozens of Malaysian officials were charged in 2010 with accepting bribes and sexual favors in exchange for allowing illegally mined sand to be  smuggled into Singapore. (Wired)

 A number of importers, including Singapore, consider the details of their sourcing to be confidential… It is a form of appropriation that differs rather dramatically from traditional seizures of territory, through war or colonial expansion… sand has become a matter of national security; it is the key currency in a new geopolitics of risk.  (Harvard Magazine)

 Half the sand used for construction in Morocco comes from illegal coastal sand mining  (IMF)

 Battles among and against “sand mafias” there have reportedly killed hundreds of people in recent years—including police officers, government officials, and ordinary people”  (Beiser)

 As local people approached the barge to confront the miners, those on board appeared indifferent and unmoved, only saying they worked for a man named “Chin Ha.”…Police arrived at the scene nearly an hour later, only to retreat after calling a superior for directions, without checking the operating license of the miners.

 Local people riding on motorized sampans showed the reporters metal bars they had prepared beforehand, saying, “We have got everything prepared. If they push it, we won’t back away anymore…Not only do authorized miners exploit the banks to their full extent, but illegal ones also sneak in to have their share, turning our once peaceful land into a constant fear of land submersion,” a local resident said.

  The project…began in January…aimed to dredge 70,000 cubic metres of sand …to facilitate passage of boats and re-sanding the badly eroded Cửa Đại Beach…just 16,500 cubic metres had been pumped onto the Cửa Đại beach …the remaining 50,000 cubic metres are “missing.”  (Vietnam News)

 Deputy Prime Minister Trương Hòa Bình yesterday admitted that some local authorities covered up for or even offered immunity to illegal sand miners(Vietnam News)

 In the dark of the night of 20 December, two Kenyan truck drivers met a blazing death. The men were loading up their vehicles at around 2am on the bank of the Muooni river, about 60 miles south-east of Nairobi, when a mob of local youths descended on them. The attackers torched the lorries, burning the drivers “beyond recognition”, police told a local newspaper. A third truck driver was shot with arrows. (The Guardian)

 The victims include an 81-year-old teacher and a 22-year-old activist who were separately hacked to death, a journalist who was burned to death, and at least three police officers who were run over by sand trucks.

 The mine operators[East Java, Indonesia] threatened to kill them if they kept interfering; the farmers reported the threats to the police and asked for protection. Soon after, at least a dozen men attacked Tosan, ran him over with a motorcycle and left him for dead in the middle of the road.Salim was battered and stabbed to death. His body was left on the street with his hands tied behind his back. (The Guardian)

 Sand mining has been banned in much of Makueni County in recent years, but the trade continues. “Between tonight and 7am tomorrow morning you can stand on the highway and count 100 lorries heading to Nairobi [full of sand],” (The Guardian)

Sandhya Ravishankar, an independent journalist based in Chennai, has two policemen stationed outside her home to protect her from possible harm….All hell has broken loose since Ravishankar published a four-part series on illegal beach sand mining along the Tamil Nadu coast in online news platform (Huffington Post)

Many of the potential environmental consequences of sand mining in the U.S. are realities in other nations. Deadly bridge collapses in Taiwan, Portugal and India have occurred. Lost are mangrove forests, seagrass beds, animal species dependent upon these ecosystems. These are not matters of speculation or possibility; they cannot rightly be dismissed.

While the dredger, clearing $225,000 a year, with four boats is profiting, others suffer:

The boats are destroying our fishing areas…the dredging destroys fish breeding grounds, muddies the water and tears up…nets…these days, she’s lucky to make £1,200 a year.

Problematic in its own right, sand mining exacerbates other problems. Vietnamese farmers in the Mekong Delta are plagued by the increased salinity of river waters killing rice production. The cause of increased salinity is the confluence of at least three factors: rising seas, more extreme weather patterns that bring both drought and torrential rains; and, the lowering of the Mekong River caused by the dredgers.

Added to these causes is the uncoordinated construction of dams by the six countries along the river’s length. That there are several causes to the problem does not diminish the negative impact of sand mining; it speaks to the fact that we humans threaten the sustainability of our own economies by the many things we do.

Poyang Lake, China’s largest body of freshwater, is now considered the world’s largest sand mine. study by a group of American, Dutch, and Chinese researchers estimates that 236 million cubic meters of sand are taken out of the (Poyang) lake annually — 30 times more than the amount that flows in from tributary rivers.

Beyond the obvious problem of a lake with no water in it for substantial periods of the year, is the impact mining the lake has on the Yangtze River. Dredging has deepened and widened the lake’ spillway—nearly doubling the amount of the water it discharges into the Yangtze.

It doesn’t take a hydrologist to understand what rapid dumping of twice the inflow—as typical of monsoons–will do to the lands down river. To demonstrate, place an 8-ounce glass on the counter and then rapidly pour a 24-ounce pitcher of water into it—mop and repeat, should you think it can’t happen again.

The Poyang historically cycles between wet and dry seasons. Last year the lake entered its low season 54 days earlier than in previous years. At the end of February, the water level, according to reports, was two meters lower than normal and down to a fourth of what it is in flood season, covering an area of 351 square kilometers.

Poyang’s cumulative problems are causing concern that the lake will be unable to adequately supply the tens of millions of Chinese dependent upon it for drinking and irrigation water. Significantly lower water levels compromise the lake’s ability to accommodate the waste water flowing into it. Less water, same waste, results in higher concentrations of contaminant more difficult to filter out.

The environmental consequences of sand mining are too easily touched to be denied. Crumbling foundations, lake bottoms once hosting thriving fishing industries but now grazed by cattle, lost crop lands, dry wells and lost species are only a portion of the price paid for the seemingly insatiable demand for a diminishable resource.

The societal costs of sand mining are every bit as real as the environmental. Lives lost to violence, communities broken apart because their people can  no longer earn a living or count on potable water and productive farm land, along with government corruption are all a portion of the price being paid for unsustainable building practices, manufacturing processes and energy systems.

Sustainability is not solely about reducing carbon emissions through regulation and the development of clean energy alternatives. It must also be about the wise use of resources—all resources.

Had this story been about a rare earth element like molybdenum, terbium or neodymium or blood diamonds it would on its face make sense. It is the seeming simplicity and ubiquity of sand that gives this tale its power.

If sand can become scarce with all the attendant harms identified in this article, what are the consequences of an increasing scarcity of the molybdenum essential for the manufacture of high-grade stainless steels or the lithium for batteries or the antimony used as a flame retardant and in computer screens? The U.S. Department of Defense already predicts future conflicts will likely be fought over water resources made scarce by climate change.

Whether a denier or defender of climate change, the reality of resource scarcity  is impossible to dismiss. Even if global warming should prove the hoax President Trump and members of his cabinet say it is, something still needs to be done to control the ravages of sand mining on available resources, e.g. available water supplies, collapsing bridges and societal violence.

If sand sources are matters of national security for Singapore, are they not as well for China, Vietnam, India, Australia, Cambodia, the U.S. and others? The problem of resource depletion is too often lost in today’s debate about climate change.

​As intractable a problem as it seems, steps can be taken by governments and industry itself, if not suddenly to solve, then to begin ameliorating the situation in the near-term, while seeking better answers in the longer-term, including:

  • Enactment of recycling laws;
  • Establishment of mining and other curbs on excess extraction;
  • Enforcement of laws and regulations both existing and new;
  • Support of research programs to develop alternatives and improved efficiencies of manufacture;
  • Creating partnerships between government and industry; and,
  • Collaboration with other nations.

The story of sand mining is an allegorical tale of the future–an allusion to the fate of other resources. Whether it will be a time defined by words like scarcity, violence, the breakdown of the rule of law, economic and social injustice, an environment harmful to all living in it, depends upon what is done today.

Recognizing the problem and the role we play is only a first step. I don’t know what steps will be taken tomorrow to solve this and other problems. I do know with confidence will can never again look at a beach or even the neighbor boy’s sand box and think–it’s just sand after all.

*Note I had questioned this number as it seemed quite high to me. An internet search confirmed it—or it didn’t disprove it. The number is either true, or it is a number that once used was simply repeated by successive authors/organizations.  Whether 50K loads per day or not, the amount of illegally taken sand is significant.

Tamil Nadu is a southern state of India having a population of over 67 million.

Kerala, the state in which Tambichan lives is also a southern state in India. It is on the Malibar Coast and west of Tamil Nadu.

Image RemovedSingapore/Harvard Design Magazine

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Dried up: The level of Poyang Lake varies hugely depending on the season/ DAILY MAIL

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Sand mining boats work illegally on the Thane Creek in Maharashtra, India, on March 20, 2015. Workers dive to the bottom with a metal bucket to scoop sand; the boat crew hauls it to the surface.  ADAM FERGUSON

Lead image credit: A boat is stranded on the Poyang Lake in east China, site of one of the world’s biggest sand mines. Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft Images

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion (www.civilnotion.com) and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: environmental effects of sand mining, sand mining