There is an increasing demand for sand from Bangladesh’s construction industry that has led to an escalation in sand mining. An illegal industry has spread that now overshadows the legal one. The mining is also destroying ecosystems and exacerbating river erosion.
As Bangladesh’s cities and towns grow on the back of solid economic growth over the past three decades, the construction industry has resorted to extracting sand from rivers nationwide. This sand flows into the country year-round through 57 transboundary rivers from India and Myanmar. In all, these waterways carry around 2.4 billion metric tons of sediment, including sand, clay and silt.
A large part of the extracted sand is used as landfill to reclaim new land in a country where much of the area is part of a delta. These new lands, often created by filling in canals and drains, pose an obstacle to the flow of the monsoon runoff.
The sand mining itself poses a threat to all kinds of physical infrastructure, including homes, agricultural lands, schools, bridges, and embankments in the river. It also destroys the adjoining groundwater system, according to a recent study.
Hotspots of illegal sand mining include districts in the Ganges River Basin and the Meghna River Basin.
The Bangladesh government has long been aware of the problem, and in 2010 passed the Quarry and Soil Management Act to control sand mining activities. But critics say the law is neither effective at discouraging sand mining, nor is it enforced seriously by the government.
As a result of the unregulated extraction of sand, Bangladesh’s floodplains are sinking deeper, raising the probability of worsening floods and flood damage. And by altering the pattern of riverbeds and coastal areas, sand mining is responsible for causing harm to several species of flora and fauna.
“Alongside natural causes, unplanned sand mining is one of the major causes of river erosion in Bangladesh,” said Maminul Haque Sarker, senior adviser on river, delta and coastal morphology at the Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS).
“Extreme mining of sand causes the degradation of rivers and their channels. The mining process creates holes in the bed, which leads to riverbank erosion,” he said.
In recent years, CEGIS has been monitoring erosion caused by three major rivers in Bangladesh: the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna. In 2019, it recorded 725 hectares (1,792 acres) of land swallowed by the Brahmaputra and 1,240 hectares (3,064 acres) lost to the Ganges (the lower stretch of which is known in Bangladesh as the Padma).
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, arable land, schools, health facilities, government and nongovernment establishments stood on this land that had been eroded.
Weak law, weak enforcement
Environmental activists and lawyers are critical of the Quarry and Soil Management Act because of the numerous loopholes that exist in it.
The law permits local governments to declare a particular area a “sand quarry” based on the suggestions of a committee, without specifying the criteria for identifying a quarry. The law also doesn’t require miners to carry out an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before starting extraction activities.
In India, the government has long required an EIA be carried out for sand mining, and in 2016 extended that requirement to projects in areas smaller than 5 hectares.
“We have a very weak legal framework and even this weak legal framework is not implemented,” said Syeda Rizwana Hasan, an environmental lawyer and activist. She added that influential local players with political connections are major stakeholders in the sand extraction business.
“The weak act is always giving them an escape route. Sometimes, they run their operations in front of the local administration by exerting influence through the presence of thugs,” Rizwana said.
Bangladesh also doesn’t track statistics on sand extraction, said Rizwana, who is also the chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA). She said it can be assumed that about 60-70% of the total mined sand in the Bangladeshi market is illegally extracted.
BELA has filed at least 300 lawsuits against illegal mining across the country in recent years. “None of the convicted received exemplary punishment, as the act allows them to secure release by paying a small fine,” Rizwana said.
Out of control
Because of the poor legal framework and the massive profits involved, influential people with political connections are increasingly getting into the sand mining business. Their presence makes it difficult and dangerous to speak out, environmental activists say.
Local government officials have been physically assaulted when trying to inspect allegations of illegal mining, as have journalists investigating the issue, according to local media. In 2012, three people were detained in 2012 in a fabricated lawsuit filed by a sand mining company, according to a report by the Asian Human Rights Commission.