Illegal sand mining: Damaging, dangerous and costly

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Article by Kotie Geldenhuys

Rugged dirt tracks criss-cross the sandy river embankment where indigenous shrubs once adorned the area. As the handler manoeuvres the excavator back onto the riverbank, it leaks hydraulic oil which leaves an unsightly trail while the air is filled with dirt and the smell of diesel smoke. The ground shakes as he lumbers towards the trucks on which he loads the river sand. Barefoot men, residents of the nearby village, risk their safety to help with the excavation. They use shovels to flatten the heaps of earth, working dangerously close to the mechanical arm of the excavator, which swings overhead. The roaring engines and the noise of the excavator drown out any semblance of tranquillity that used to exist in this once-natural space. The peaceful and natural environment that was once enjoyed by both wildlife and villagers has now been invaded and disrupted by this process of extraction. The riverbed itself has been altered, as the excavated materials are hauled away by the departing trucks, leaving the ecosystem of the riverbed disturbed and vulnerable to further degradation.

Sand, which takes millions of years to form through the weathering of rock and minerals, is one of the most widely used natural resources in the world after water. As it is a critical natural resource which is used in construction, manufacturing and various other industries, severe shortages are experienced worldwide. The United Nations claims that the global aggregate use of sand exceeds 40 billion tonnes per year which is twice the volume of sediment carried by all the world’s rivers (De Greef, 2017). Richard Lee, who is the freshwater communications manager of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), argued that the use of sand has tripled in the last two decades due to urbanisation, population growth, land reclamation and the infrastructure boom (Crosse, 2022).

The sand mining industry is estimated to account for 85% of all mineral exploration globally which means that a significant portion of mineral exploration activities is focussed on sand mining. In 2017, approximately 50 billion metric tonnes of sand were mined, and the market value of this sand was valued at $99.5 billion. According to projections, the value of the sand mining industry is expected to grow significantly over time. By the year 2100, it is estimated that the industry’s value could reach almost $481 billion (Daghar, 2020).


[This is only an extract of an article that is published in Servamus: September 2023. This article is available for purchase.]

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