Sandmining: Points to Ponder

Minister of Irrigation and Water Management, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, recently announced that the government had decided to use sand from the sea for construction work. The decision follows the findings of research conducted as part of the Coastal Resources Management Project, funded by the Asian Development Bank, upon a request made by the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.

Sand, as we know, is an essential ingredient in construction. Whether or not there is a construction boom in the country in terms of large development projects, it is required for building housing units and when large amounts of fill are necessary where expressways are built through marshy land. Currently the annual demand for sand stands at 7.5 million cubic meters and this is expected to soar to 10 million cubic meters by 2005.

According to Dr. R. A. D. B. Samaranayake, Director General of the Coast Conservation Department, we cannot afford the mechanical equipment needed to mine sea sand. Whether monetary and technical help will be forthcoming one cannot say. However, given the widely publicised ill-effects of river sand mining, and in fact its illegality in certain cases, it is heartening to know that a serious effort is being made to explore alternatives.

The Minister has said that desalinated sea sand will be used for medium and mega scale development projects. In other words, the project, if it becomes operational, will only complement river sand mining. One would hope, then, that the availability of an alternative does not result in neglecting river sand mining, especially the need for more strict supervision and monitoring of this vital but not particularly environment friendly activity. It is such supervision and not necessarily sea sand mining that will "eliminate the adverse effects of river sand mining on the environment," as promised by the Minister.

Although sand is one of the world’s most plentiful resources (as much as 20% of the Earth’s crust is sand), clean sand is becoming increasingly rare. As in the case of mining sand from waterways, one cannot extract sea sand from just anywhere. The quality of the sand, its location, the impact that mining will have on marine ecosystems and fisheries, the cost of extraction (including transportation costs that may prove prohibitive in certain cases) are among the factors that need to be taken into consideration.

Official statements regarding the project seem to emphasise on the quality of sea sand as a viable alternative to river sand, but not the other factors listed above. However, Dr. Samaranayake has assured us that the project has been subjected to relevant environment impact assessments. It is important that the general public is made fully aware of the ways in which the particular area will be changed physically, biologically and chemically, when the sand is disturbed.

We are yet to know the exact method of mining proposed by the study or from where the US $ 5 million necessary to set up the off-shore dig will come from. Large scale projects, especially those funded by ADB loans, have come in for a lot of criticism from environmentalists and other civil society organisations. It would be prudent for the government, the possible funders and the implementing agencies to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. Good development has to take into consideration the "long-term", in terms of both environmental and social costs, of course balancing these against such costs as they pertain to river sand mining. These issues need to be addressed both by the government and by those who are concerned about possible environmental fallout.

The plan, when it is finally put into action, must provide for elaborate and independent monitoring during sand harvesting. Steps should also be taken to prevent a monopoly from emerging. Most important, like in all large-scale "development" projects, those responsible should understand that mining of sand is not a right but a privilege.

Sea sand mining is a relatively young industry and technological glitches are to be expected. These will be encountered only later on. There are many things that need to happen and worry about before relevant authorities have to deal with such headaches. Let us hope they will be up to the challenge.

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