Demand for sand in Bangladesh escalates illegal activities, threatens environment


  • Bangladesh’s construction industry’s demand for sand has fueled a boom in unregulated and illegal river exploration, activists say.
  • This mined sand flows year-round through 57 transboundary rivers from India and Myanmar. In total, these waterways carry around 2.4 billion tons of sediment, including sand, clay and silt.
  • According to a study, excessive sand extraction destroys the ecology of river systems and their biodiversity and increases the risk of river erosion.
  • A 2010 law intended to keep sand mining in check has instead allowed the illegal industry to thrive, critics say, thanks to weak punishment, lax enforcement and the involvement of politically-affiliated actors in the deal.

The increasing demand for sand from Bangladesh’s construction industry has led to an escalation of sand mining. An illegal industry has proliferated that is now overshadowing the legal one. Mining also destroys ecosystems and exacerbates river erosion.

While Bangladesh’s cities and towns have grown on the back of solid economic growth over the past three decades, the construction industry across the country has resorted to quarrying sand from rivers. This sand flows into the country year-round through 57 transboundary rivers from India and Myanmar. In total, these waterways carry around 2.4 billion tons of sediment, including sand, clay and silt.

Much of the sand extracted is used as landfill for reclamation of new land in a country where much of the area is part of a delta. These new lands, often created by the filling of canals and drains, present a barrier to the flow of monsoon runoff.

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Sand mining itself poses a threat to all types of physical infrastructure, including homes, farmland, schools, bridges and embankments in the river. According to a recent study, it also destroys the adjacent groundwater system.

Hotspots of illegal sand mining are districts in the Ganges Basin and the Meghna Basin.

The Bangladesh government has long been aware of the problem and passed the Quarry and Soil Management Act in 2010 to control sand mining. However, critics say the law is not effective in preventing sand mining, nor is it seriously enforced by the government.

Two men stand on a makeshift raft
Two men stand on a makeshift raft on the banks of a river where sand is illegally mined. Image courtesy of Waterkeepers Bangladesh.

Negative effects

Unregulated sand mining is causing Bangladesh’s flood plains to sink deeper, increasing the likelihood of flooding and flood damage. And by changing the pattern of river beds and coastal areas, sand mining is responsible for damaging multiple species of flora and fauna.

“Besides natural causes, unplanned sand mining is one of the main causes of river erosion in Bangladesh,” said Maminul Haque Sarker, senior advisor on river, delta and coastal morphology at the Center for Environmental and Geographical Information Services (CEGIS).

“Extreme sand mining causes the degradation of rivers and their channels. The mining process creates holes in the bed, leading to riverbank erosion,” he said.

In recent years, CEGIS has monitored the erosion of three major rivers in Bangladesh: Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna. In 2019, 725 hectares (1,792 acres) of land was swallowed up by the Brahmaputra and 1,240 hectares (3,064 acres) lost to the Ganges (the lower part of which is known as the Padma in Bangladesh).

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In 2020, more land was lost to these rain-swollen rivers: 1,120 hectares (2,768 acres) to the Brahmaputra and 1,265 hectares (3,126 acres) to the Ganges. Roads, farmland, schools, health care facilities, governmental and non-governmental institutions stood on this eroded land.

Sand mining on the river banks.
By changing the pattern of river beds and coastal areas, sand mining is responsible for damaging several species of flora and fauna. Image courtesy of Waterkeepers Bangladesh.

Weak law, weak enforcement

Environmental activists and advocates have criticized the Quarry and Soil Management Act for the numerous loopholes it contains.

The law allows local governments to designate a particular area as a “sand quarry” based on a committee’s proposals, without specifying the criteria for identifying a quarry. The law also does not require miners to conduct an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before beginning mining activities.

In India, the government has long required an EIA to be carried out for sand mining, and in 2016 extended this requirement to projects in areas smaller than 5 hectares.

“We have a very weak legal framework and even that weak legal framework is not being implemented,” said Syeda Rizwana Hasan, an environmental advocate and activist. She added that influential local actors with political connections are important players in the sand extraction business.

“The weak act always gives them an escape route. Sometimes they carry out their operations in front of the local administration by exerting influence through the presence of thugs,” Rizwana said.

Bangladesh also doesn’t track sand extraction statistics, said Rizwana, who is also the executive director of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA). She said it is estimated that around 60-70% of all the sand mined in the Bangladeshi market is illegally mined.

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BELA has filed at least 300 lawsuits against illegal mining across the country in recent years. “None of those convicted received exemplary punishment as the law allows them to secure their release by paying a small fine,” Rizwana said.

Sand mining on the river banks.
Activists say it is estimated that around 60-70% of all sand mined in the Bangladeshi market is illegally mined. Image courtesy of Waterkeepers Bangladesh.

Out of control

Due to the poor legal framework and the massive profits associated with it, more and more influential people with political connections are getting into the sand mining business. Their presence makes speaking out difficult and dangerous, environmental activists say.

According to local media, local government officials were physically attacked while trying to investigate allegations of illegal mining, as were journalists investigating the issue. In 2012, three people were arrested in a fabricated lawsuit filed by a sand mining company, according to a report by the Asian Human Rights Commission.


Continue reading: [Video] Sand mining and how it undermines life and the environment


QUOTE:

Reindeer, ES, & Cammeraat, LH (2022). The environmental impact of river sand mining. science of the whole environment, 838(1), 155877. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.155877


This story was first published on Mongabay.com.


Banner image: Bangladesh’s construction industry’s demand for sand has led to a boom in unregulated and illegal quarrying from rivers. Image courtesy of Waterkeepers Bangladesh.



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