Demand for Sand Threatens Rivers and Freshwater Fish in Southern Sri Lanka

gem mining in Ratnapura
Daily Mirror
Nivitigala, Sri Lanka
Demand for Sand Threatens Rivers and Freshwater Fish in Southern Sri Lanka
  • The total demand for sand between 2021 and 2025 is estimated to be 55.1 million cubic meters.
  • People in the small town Nivitigala in Southern Sri Lanka and the surrounding areas depend on these mining operations irrespective of their legality, in order to make ends meet.
  • Sand mining can alter these substrates causing changes to the macroinvertebrate fauna.
  • Monthly field visits too are conducted by the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) officials to ensure that sand mining operations take place without any impacts on the environment.
  • A proper transportation license system is also needed to keep track of how much sand is being extracted.
Two men stand in the shallow waters mining sand in the We Ganga River
Sand mining operation at We Ganga​ / Credit: Waruna Wanniarachchi.

The Wé Ganga Muththetuwatta Mankada in Nivitigala, located 20km away from Ratnapura city, transforms into a hive of activity at the break of dawn. Both sand and gem miners utilize this ‘lucky spot’ along the Wé Ganga — a tributary of the Kalu Ganga that flows through Ratnapura and Kalutara Districts —with hopes of laying their hands on a fortune before the day concludes. Gem and sand mining are two professions that many people get involved in mostly to make a quick buck. However, many of them ignore the environmental hazards caused by excessive sand mining. They blame nature for occasional floods that occur during the rainy season, which keeps them away from work for days. Given the boom in the construction industry, sand is the most extracted resource by volume after water in terms of materials in high demand; hence more competitors have now stepped into sand mining. But depleting resources and threats to endemic freshwater fish populations in these riverine ecosystems have largely been ignored. The actual damage of mining sand and resources is unknown.

Exponential demand

According to the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) — the main institution that oversees mining and related activities — the total demand for sand between 2021 and2025 is estimated to be 55.1 million cubic meters. For 2022 this estimate stands at 9.7 million cubic meters but is expected to increase to 12.4 million cubic meters by 2025. However, the total annual demand is much higher than these estimates. The total annual demand between 2021 and2025 is 266.5 million cubic meters. Therefore, the demand for sand for 2022 and 2025 lies at 48.4 million cubic meters and 63.2 million cubic meters respectively. The majority of the demand comes from private and public sector projects apart from constructing housing schemes and other similar projects.

On any given day, Ratnapura town is bustling with activity. Gem merchants, both amateurs and veterans, flock outside gem boutiques while traders examine gemstones with torches and goggles. Apart from gem-mining, sand mining too happens on a large scale. 

Through a Right to Information (RTI) application filed by the Daily Mirror, it was revealed that 135 sand mining licenses have been issued for the year 2021 in the Ratnapura District. The Kalu Ganga is fed by four tributaries and one of them is Wé Ganga that flows through Nivitigala, Thiruwanaketiya and several other towns in the Sabaragamuwa Province, which is a hotspot for gem and sand mining activities. Many people in Nivitigala and surrounding areas depend on these mining operations irrespective of whether they are illegal or legal to make ends meet. 

M. Vijay was a sand miner prior to becoming a full-time gem miner. He says that gem mining is more profitable than sand mining. “We had to face many legal issues due to sand mining and some [of us] used to get arrested. Back in 2016 we earned Rs 3500 for one cube of sand, which is 60 caskets. But our income was only Rs 2700. We only get to work for around 15 days a month. But from gem mining we earn enough to survive the month. I have two children and the cost of living has soared. Therefore, we need to earn more,” Vijay added. 

When asked if villagers have been informed about no-mining zones by the GSMB, Vijay responded in the affirmative and said that they carry out mining operations without causing any damage to the environment.

Shashikumar has been involved in sand mining operations for the past two years. “I decided to get involved in this industry due to financial difficulties. But we can’t say whether it’s a profitable business. On some days we get sand and on some days we don’t. One cube of sand is equal to 60 caskets and we get Rs. 4000 for one cube. But during the pandemic period we didn’t engage in sand mining activities,” Shashikumar said.

He added that they do not have problems with unlicensed operations. “We don’t mine near riverbanks and the GSMB officials guide us during these operations. However, we may not be able to continue (sand mining) in the future due to the growing gem mining industry. This is the main source of income here,” he said. 

Responding to a query on environmental issues, Shashikumar questioned how people will be able to construct houses without sand.

“People in air-conditioned offices will say that this destroys the environment, but how will they build houses without sand? The construction industry requires sand. It is only because of us that they live in mansions,” he added.

Impacts on freshwater fish

Sri Lanka is home to 103 rivers that span its nine provinces and 25 districts. “Around 60-70% of endemic freshwater fish species are found in these rivers,” said Professor Devaka Weerakoon of the Department of Zoology, University of Colombo. “Fish are a very important part of freshwater ecosystems where some are top predators and they help balance the equilibrium in an ecosystem. The fundamental challenge for freshwater fish is that most of their habitats are outside protected areas,” he explained. 

A river’s upper catchment area is comprised of fast-flowing waters followed by the central area which has a good volume of water that is slower, thereby enabling many freshwater fish species to breed and thrive in this part of the river. “Even though there’s a lot of water, all rivers cannot support all freshwater species,” Weerakoon added. “Wet zone rivers starting from Maha Oya, Aththanagalu Oya, Kelani and Kalu Ganga support a majority of freshwater species; nearly 75% of them are found in these rivers,” he said.

“The main physical impacts of sand mining are generally channel incision, habitat degradation, alteration of the riparian vegetation and changes to downstream sediment transport,” explained Hiranya Sudasinghe, an ichthyologist who has conducted extensive research on the evolution and biogeography of freshwater fishes in Sri Lanka. “The ecosystem impacts of sand mining include a shift in macroinvertebrate fauna, changes in fish movements, species abundance, community structure, and food web dynamics,” Sudasinghe added.

“Some freshwater fish in Sri Lankan waters are generalists who can live in a variety of different habitats. However, there are some freshwater fish which are habitat specialists, and they are usually confined to specific habitats to which they are well adapted. An example of one such habitat specialist is the endangered Redneck goby (Schismatogobius deraniyagalai) found only in open, clear shallow waters with sandy substrates. The type locality (the location in which the species was originally discovered) is in fact in We-Ganga, a tributary of Kelani River. Sand mining is likely to affect the population of this species by altering its specific habitat conditions,” said Sudasinghe. 

Sudasinghe added that some macroinvertebrate fauna may have substrate preferences. “Sand mining can alter these substrates causing a change in the macroinvertebrate fauna. This in turn can affect the freshwater fish because the macroinvertebrate fauna is a major prey item,” he explained. 

Process of issuing a permit

Against such a backdrop, sand mining can cause more harm than good from an environmental point of view. Section 28 of the Mines and Minerals Act No. 33 of 1992 mandates a license to mine, transport, process, store, trade in or export any minerals in Sri Lanka. Several restrictions are explicitly mentioned under sections 29, 30, 31 and 38 in terms of issuing licenses. In order to ensure that these activities are done in a methodical manner, the GSMB issues licenses under several categories including Artisanal Mining Licenses – A and B Grades with varying specifications. 

The RTI query revealed that prior to issuing a license the GSMB evaluates the presence of sand reserves in the selected area. The includes looking at whether there are irrigation canals or bridges in its vicinity, whether there is a route to transport the sand or whether a route could be paved, the impacts on riverbanks when mining sand, whether the sand-mining operations could be conducted in an eco-friendly manner and whether the miners/contractors own the plot they choose to extract from.

Apart from the charges issued for various mining licenses, the contractor is expected to pay Rs 345.60 per sand cube as royalty. In the event of riverbank erosion as a result of sand mining operations, the GSMB takes measures to plant trees, add sandbags and restore the banks. Monthly field visits are also conducted by GSMB officials to ensure that sand mining operations take place without any impacts on the environment. If they become aware of unauthorized sand mining operations, they seek assistance from local police and Special Task Force troops to halt such activities. Several attempts to contact GSMB to inquire about the amount of sand extracted from a river per year proved futile.

Legal loopholes

Section 61 of the Mines and Minerals Act stipulates that anyone holding a license should comply with standards and procedures of the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980. As such, the protection of the environment cannot be overlooked when issuing a license. However, in December 2019, when the incumbent government assumed power, several cabinet decisions were aimed at amending Sections 28 and 30 as a means of ‘simplifying’ the process of issuing licenses to better facilitate industrial needs. 

“However, the Mines and Minerals (Amendment) Act No. 66 of 2009 includes storage of sand without a license as an offence,” said Wardani Karunaratne, legal consultant for the Environmental Foundation Ltd. “Contractors have enough space to exploit sand if storing is not managed. Transportation licenses are also linked to mining licenses. Therefore, a proper transportation license system is also needed to keep track of how much sand is being extracted. The transportation license even specifies the route, so that they cannot loiter around other sand mines while on the way to their destination,” said Karunaratne. 

Section 35 (4) mandates license-holders to comply with all environmental protection laws. “If there are any violations, the GSMB is empowered by law to revoke these licenses. If they do excessive mining or storage of sand, then the authority can cancel such licenses as well,” said Karunaratne. 

She further said that people tend to exploit provisions and engage in unlawful practices. As a result of legal interventions, no-mining zones were declared along the Maha Oya for instance. Maha Oya is a river that fell prey to mechanized sand mining and this activity was later banned through a court case. Therefore, 100 meters from the riverbank is now considered a protected area and no mining or sand extraction can be done within this area. 

“Stakeholders such as the Central Environmental Authority and the GSMB have conducted awareness programs in all nine provinces, but people still tend to violate the law. A task force has been appointed comprising GSMB officials and representatives of these stakeholders, but a highly politicized system is a barrier for enforcing the law. There have been many occasions where people have forged documents in order to obtain licenses. Sometimes licenses are suspended for six months, but they still find ways to renew licenses,” she added. 

Karunaratne further said that the maximum fine for not renewing a license is Rs. 50,000 ($140 USD) and that it is a negligible amount for contractors. “In the event of unlawful practices, they could seize machinery and tools in a similar way to how it is being done to enforce laws under the Forest Ordinance. But this is not done as per the Mines and Minerals Act."

"Rigorous penalties would prevent people from engaging in unlawful activities. Otherwise, they take the law for granted. With the growing demand for sand, clay, gravel and other resources, these miners will go to any extent to meet the demand irrespective of restrictions,” she said.

Table showing the list of endemic species in the We Ganga and Maha Oya
List of endemic species recorded from the We Ganga Tributary and the Maha Oya River that are at risk from sand mining / Credit: The Daily Mirror.

Possible alternatives

It is high time that people in Sri Lanka looked for substitutes for sand. The West has already started research on Live Building Materials (LBMs) and in Sri Lanka the utilization of mud concrete blocks and coir products to build walls have been tried and tested. “Sea sand has less strength and therefore people opt for river sand to put up walls and other construction,” said Professor Rangika Halwathura, inventor and former Chairman of the Sri Lanka Inventors Commission. “We therefore tested mud concrete blocks and these are now being used in construction. They can ensure the stability of a building, similar to other conventional resources. Coir products are being used for partitioning walls and these are derived from kithul trees. We also use a lot of sand when it comes to plastering walls. For this we have experimented with building blocks made of sludge that accumulates from industrial waste. This is found in landfill sites. Once hardened, this sludge takes on a rocky texture and it can be used as wall putty,” said Halwathura. 

Sustainable extraction methods need to be promoted. “Management plans should be drafted for major rivers in order to evaluate sand reserves prior to issuing mining licenses. In most places, once sand is extracted there is no sand to replenish the estuaries and other ecosystems,” added Karunaratne.

Eroded river banks and a muddy river
Eroded riverbanks due to heavy sand mining / Credit: Waruna Wanniarachchi​.

Unregulated sand mining activities can have severe environmental consequences, some of which may be irreversible. “We are highly dependent on our freshwater ecosystem and therefore proper sustainable management of the resources is needed. Sand mining needs to be regulated without irregular political influence on how permits are issued for sand mining. We also need to research alternatives that can be used in construction instead of sand. If sand mining from rivers is not sustainable in the long term, we will have to consider alternative sources.  To formulate a science-based policy we also need to quantify and map the extracted volumes to understand how sand mining impacts sediment levels [in the context of other] flow disruptors such as hydropower,” Hiranya Sudasinghe further advised.

Progressive decisions underway?

A collage of fresh water fish and their names
Images of freshwater fish species which breed and thrive in some of these rivers where mining activities take place / Credit Hiranya Sudasinghe.

While many issues remain unresolved, the Cabinet has granted approval for a new ‘Code of Mining Minerals, Transportation and Trade for Construction Industry’ which includes new methods of extracting geological resources. A circular issued to inform the public on the chapters of the Code states that the GSMB should collect fees on behalf of relevant government authorities and this money should be credited to an income source of the Environment Ministry.

When asked about forged documents submitted to obtain licenses, Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said that special investigation units at the GSMB and the Ministry examine these documents prior to the issuance of licenses.

Responding to a query on amending fines and penalties as many contractors can easily afford these fines in most instances, Amaraweera said that there is a proposal to amend the Mines and Minerals Act to increase fines and penalties and that it has been sent to the legal draftsman’s department. “We plan to increase fines up to Rs. 500,000. We are also planning to evaluate sand reserves and introduce a sand evaluation plan for all major rivers,” he said.

This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published by the Daily Mirror on 15 March 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Gem mining in Ratnapura, Sri Lanka / Credit: Hassage via Flickr.

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