Sand Excavation in Sri Lanka's Mannar Will Lead To Destruction

sandy beach dunes
Virakesari
Mannar, Sri Lanka
Sand Excavation in Sri Lanka's Mannar Will Lead To Destruction

Preliminary work is in full swing with plans for massive sand mining in the Mannar region of Sri Lanka. Australian private mining company Titanium Sands declared that it was pleased that the 38-hole drilling operation on Mannar Island had been completed and other operations are progressing successfully in a statement issued on February 11, 2022. This confirms the onset of large-scale mineral sand mining in Mannar. According to the plan, Titanium Sands aims to drill 300 holes within an area of 3,600 square meters on the island of Mannar by the first week of March. 38 holes have already been placed of which 33 holes have a surface area of 2 meters and a depth of 12 meters. The obtained soil samples will first be tested locally by an independent laboratory and then sent to South Africa for further mineral analysis.  

So what will be the impact on the environment, biodiversity and climate? That question remains at the fore for many. It is noteworthy that the project was launched in December 2015 and was suspended at the end of 2020 following protests. 
 

Mannar district consists of a small island with a mainland. The Gulf of Mannar lies between the south-eastern tip of India and Mannar, a haven for marine biodiversity. The Gulf of Mannar is home to one of the four major coral reefs in the Indian Ocean. The adjoining island of Mannar covers an area of 143 sq. km and is 26 km long and 6 km wide. The total area of Mannar district is 2002 sq. km. Mannar district has the fourth largest ilmenite deposits in the world. The island is said to have 53 million tons of mineral soil. Ilmenite, leucoxene, zirconium, rutile, titanium oxide, granite, sillimanite or orthoclase are also found in alkaline soil. This has been confirmed by the Bureau of Mines. It is in this context that the 204 sq. m. was allocated for preliminary research. 

table with  numbers indicating mineral deposits
Mineral resources in the sand of Mannar Island / Credit: Virakesari.
graph of mannar island
Mineral areas identified on Mannar Island / Credit: Virakesari.

What's going on? 

Ecologists are beginning to pay attention to the sand excavations on Mannar Island.  

“International organizations are visiting developing countries, extracting mineral resources and plundering all resources, creating a whole range of environmental and social problems,” said Dr.Sampath Seneviratne, Professor, Department of Zoology and Environmental Sciences, University of Colombo.

So far in Mannar, 3,500 'air core' holes have been drilled on private lands and 473 holes have been drilled at a depth of 12 meters below ground level. This activity has taken place in the lowlands and from the headlands to Pesalai and from Karisal.

Twenty containers of mineral sand samples have been exported to South Africa for testing, said Jeremy Ahmed Liyanage, Executive Director of the charity Bridging Lanka.  

Liyanage also pointed out that the project aims to excavate 265 metric tons of mineral soil. According to reports, these soil samples will be collected and the mining of mineral sand will continue for 20 to 25 years.

“During the droughts and floods in the district, seawater intrusion will become unavoidable and the livelihoods of the people such as fisheries, palm, coconut and livestock [cultivation] will be completely destroyed. There is also a risk that the terrain of Mannar Island will completely change and residents will leave,” warns Dr. Soosai Anandan, a retired professor at the University of Jaffna.  

Anandan said that the drilling of up to 12 meters would break the aquifers and cause freshwater to mix with brackish water, further increasing the shortage of drinking water in Mannar, which is already an arid region. In Mannar there are 874 hectares of mangrove plants. These tropical plants stimulate the reproduction of microorganisms, fish and mammals, and can absorb pollutants, including carbon dioxide. The future of such tropical plants is in question due to this activity. It will also upset the climatic balance of the already hot Mannar district.  

beach with garbage on it
Extensive mineral resources along the coast of Mannar Island / Credit: Virakesari.

Internationally the effects of mineral sand mining in countries such as Kuwait, Kenya and Mauritius have many lessons for Sri Lanka. “Improper mineral sand mining in Kenya has displaced people and turned the region into an arid region. The shortage of drinking water has led to an increase in the number of people fleeing the area as refugees,” said Rabindranath Tabre, a lawyer and chair of the Center for Environmental Justice and lecturer.  

Mineral resources have now been exhausted due to the continuous excavations carried out in Pulmottai, Sri Lanka. Also, court restraining orders have been issued to halt excavations in the Eppawala area. It is in this context that the excavation work in Mannar has been accelerated. Shareen Saroor, founder and human rights activist of the Women Development Union, pointed out that human livelihoods are threatened when the environment is affected, especially in Sri Lanka.

“There are up to 70,000 people living on the island of Mannar. The majority of them are women-headed families. They depend on the sea and land for their livelihood. Their livelihood will be taken away by this sand mining. Their future is in question.”  

construction workers operating machinery
Mineral resources have now been exhausted due to the continuous excavations carried out in Pulmottai, Sri Lanka / Credit: Virakesari.

Local resident 63-year-old Yogam Cruz said, “I have been involved in fishing since the 1990s. I have also been the President of the Pesalai Divisional Fishermen's Association for the last four years. There are 2700 fishing families in Pesalai. Many of those families are in danger. The reason is that in the 1980s the sea was seven to eight kilometers away and now it is simply three to four kilometers inland. In such a scenario, who will ensure the survival of the coastal people if massive sand mining is carried out on the beach?”  

The key question posed by local communities is what kind of detailed study was undertaken after obtaining samples for this excavation, as sand mining could cause several environmental problems in the future. It is the norm to obtain permissions from the Geological Survey of Central Mining Bureau, the Central Environmental Authority, the Coast Guard and the Coastal Resources Department to conduct exploration of mineral resources in Sri Lanka.  

Reginald Rohan Kulas, Mannar District Office Engineer, Sri Lanka Geological Survey Bureau, said, “No announcements have been made to our Mannar Regional Office regarding the drilling. The head office is handling the matter.” 

Similarly, officials in charge of the Mannar District Office of the Central Environmental Authority, the Coast Guard and the Coastal Resources Department, who did not want to be named, also replied that they did not know.  

Nandini Stanley Dimel, the District Government Agent, who holds all the powers of the Mannar District Administration, stated, “The locals protested against the sand mining project and handed over their statements to me. I have forwarded them to the relevant authorities. But I have not received any official announcements. However, based on the information available, I have concerns about this matter.”  

Thus, it seems that sand mining activities are beyond the control of the Mannar district administration.  

The Central Geological Survey’s Mining Bureau confirmed that they did not issue a license for any study by Titanium Sands.  

“Currently, the study is in progress. However, under our applicable standards and laws no one has the right to transfer the excavation license obtained from us to an individual or a company. Only five local companies are licensed. It was not given to the Australian company,” said Hema Lianaraichchi, director of the Bureau of Mining at the Geological Survey of Sri Lanka.  

The Australian company has stated that it has undertaken high quality ilmenite excavations on the island of Mannar only after acquiring the relevant legal permits. Of the seven licenses obtained by Titanium, two are owned by Mauritian companies and the other five are owned by local companies. The seven licensed companies are also shown as subsidiaries of Titanium.  

Section 57 of the Coast Guard and Coastal Resource Management Act, 1981 states in the Constitution that ‘no permit will be issued for such a project if it adversely affects the stability, productivity and environmental quality of the coastal zone’. However, employees of Titanium’s subsidiaries said they had ‘formal government permits’.  

As such, many people in Mannar Island are still not aware of the mineral sand exploration activities and excavation projects. At the same time, drilling operations are being carried out on some privately owned lands.  

hand holding black sand
Mineral sand on the island of Mannar / Credit: Virakesari.

Titanium Sands, has stated that the Mannar Mineral Sand Mining Operation can generate 2.9% of Sri Lanka’s GDP and generate further revenue through expanding mineral exports. But Jayantha Wijesinghe, the coordinator of the Sri Lankan rainforest conservationists, refutes this claim. He says, “It is important to increase the value of products related to mineral extraction. Sri Lanka exports only raw materials. These are not sold in isolation. Thus, a graphite of the mineral sells for just $250. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s nanotechnology company refines a kilogram of graphite and sells it for between $5,000 and $9,000. So even from the point of view of economic profitability, the losses as a nation remain. In the coastal areas from Pulmottai to Komari, Kirinda and Mannar, precious minerals are completely depleted in a [rapid] manner.”  

Life or death?  

Titanium Sands CEO James Seeley reassured a Sydney-based media outlet on Tuesday that “we continue to work with full confidence to carry out the planned excavations on Mannar Island.” But Bishop Gnanappirakasam Adigalar, chairman of the Mannar District Citizens’ Committee and co-founder of Pesalai, has vowed not to allow even a handful of soil to leave the district from the island of Mannar. Diocesan Bishop Emmanuel Fernando, who is an advisor to the Mannar District Citizens’ Council, said he was preparing to meet with relevant authorities soon and would “take to the streets and fight for their right to life” if such discussions did not yield results.  

a red shipping container
Mineral sand sample collection area / Credit: Virakesari.

For now, several urgent questions remain. Are the initial activities for the mining of mineral sand in Mannar Island being carried out in accordance with Sri Lankan law? Has the environmental impact of the project been calculated? If so, what alternatives were proposed? These are questions that need to be answered. 


This report was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published by Virakesari on 1 February, 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.  

Banner image: Extensive mineral resources lie along the coast of Sri Lanka's Mannar Island / Credit: Australia's Titanium Sands Pvt.

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