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Impending dangers of unregulated sand mining on environment

With the increased population in urban areas and towns across Malawi, construction demands by companies as well as individuals in both the suburbs and cities have enormously increased.

The development has increased the pressure for sand used for construction purposes, since concrete consists of 75% of sand.

After water, sand is said to be the most consumed natural resource in the world, and has come to a point where sand is now called “the new gold”.

According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), in 2022 alone, 50 billion tons of sand, enough to build a wall 27 metres wide and 27 metres high around planet Earth was used, making it the second most used resource worldwide after water. 

Scientifically, sand is a provisioning ecosystem service and often extracted from aquatic environments such as rivers and lakes, and uncontrolled sand mining poses an underlying danger that could be so detrimental to the natural resources.

In Malawi, the resource is equally a hot business for individuals and local communities with trucks ferrying sand every day for construction.

Sand mining and livelihood

One of sand miners Francis Njobvu from Tikoliwe Village in Traditional Authority Mlonyeni in Mchinji, said for many years sand mining has been the sole business which has sustained him and his family.

Sand Mining along Tukoliwe River near Zambia-Mwami Border in Mchinji–PIC Leonard Masauli

He said through the business, he manages to buy food, clothes as well as other basic necessities at the household.

“I started doing the business of sand mining some time back. This is where I generate my income. In this business I am able to do everything at my house including buying food. We have received messages before from our Village Headman to stop mining sand in the Tukoliwe River, but the sand business is what I know most,” said Njobvu.

Another sand miner, Justina Banda concurred with Njobvu saying the high demand for construction in towns and cities has also boosted their business.

“I have managed to pay school fees for my children. On a good business day, I make as much as K50,000 (USD 50) per trip. Dangers of sand mining can be there but we are used to such business for many years,” said Banda

Impending danger

Environmental Activist Charles Bakolo said excessive sand mining has caused a serious depletion of sand in the streambed thereby deepening and enlarging river mouths and coastal inlets.

He said in 2023, Malawi has experienced flooding and some of the major contributing factors are sand mining.

“Sand mining from lakes and rivers and marine ecosystems, lead to significant environmental impacts, including coastal and river erosion, land use changes, air pollution, threat to freshwater and marine fishers and biodiversity.”

“Government of Malawi needs to enforce laws to regulate such malpractices as they pose a great threat to the environment. According to Malawi Mining laws and regulations, no one shall conduct any mining operations without acquiring a permit or license,” said Bakolo.

Another environmental expert, Daniel Jamu said sand mining is not regulated and monitored in Malawi despite its importance and rising demand for infrastructure development and is similar in other developing countries.

He said unregulated sand mining along the lake and rivers reduces the protection of shoreline infrastructure from storm surges resulting from strong winds such as mwera and cyclones.

“Sand mining disturbs critical ecosystems for aquatic habitats such as fish breeding areas and has consequences on its productivity. With increasing impacts of climate change, it is now time for government and local councils to start enforcing sand mining and environmental regulations,” said Jamu.

Jamu said the results of unenforceable laws have caused the rising levels of water in the lake hence a lot of damage on tourism infrastructures.

An environmentalist and president for Association for Environmental Journalists, Mathews Malata said globally, the demand for sand was over 50 billion tons per year across the world which is quite huge.

Construction has increased demand for sand–PIC Leonard Masauli

“However, sand mining has led to biodiversity impacts such as the fisheries sector which might also affect the breeding of fish. The practice has also led to land changes. In the districts like Nsanje we have seen changes in the way rivers flow which leads to flooding because of disturbances of the cliffs,” said Malata.

Malata urged the government to be serious on enforcement of laws guiding the sand mining practices, since sand is an important resource that is helping in terms of development and hence it needs to be regulated to save the natural resources.

Way forward

Ministry of Mines spokesperson Andrew Mkonda Banda said the Malawi’s mining Act of 2019 provides powers to councils to control and issue licenses to sand miners.

“We do carry awareness with councils as per the provision of the mining Act of 2019 to issue small licenses to sand miners. As a ministry we are not tolerating that sand mining should be happening without licenses because district councils were given that mandate,” he said.

According to the UN Environmental Report of 2019, despite the resource’ importance in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and tackling the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss, sand is being used faster than it can be naturally replenished, making its responsible management crucial.

The report says if extraction, sourcing, use, and management remain largely ungoverned in many regions of the world, it will lead to numerous environmental and social consequences that have been largely overlooked.

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