In early February 2022, the South African sand mining association ASPASA made an unusual statement, which challenges the conventional role of an industry membership body. This called for less mining.
ASPASA says illegal sand mining is wreaking havoc in South Africa. Unprotected pits create drowning risks for people and animals, and law enforcement failure has led to increasingly sophisticated and larger-scale operations.
There are other challenges. ASPASA says illegal sand mining remains under-reported and under-enforced, putting legal mines at a financial and sustainable disadvantage. What good is driving proactively for good environmental and social governance (ESG) performance and health and safety protection, only to be regularly undermined by unprosecuted operators on the fly?
For a fairer, more sustainable and safer industry, these issues must be addressed. What solutions are on the cards?
WWF’s perspective on global sand mining
Solving the sand dilemma in South Africa
“One of the most effective ways to fight back is to hold our sand suppliers accountable and obtain proof of purchase from a reputable, legally compliant sand producer,” comments Nico Pienaar, Director of ‘ASPASA in a statement. Essentially, it refers to legal certification.
“Compliant and licensed sand miners are required to comply with strict legal requirements to protect water sources, protect the environment and surrounding communities, as well as ensure a safe workplace for all who enter the site. “, continues Pienaar. They are subject to regular inspections by the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy and this cost of compliance can be substantial.
These royalties, taxes and licenses add a price premium to sand, ironically driving illegally mined resources into a more attractive market position. “There are, however, a number of pitfalls buyers need to be aware of, which begin with the overall unsustainability of these types of operations; here today and gone tomorrow,” says Pienaar.
There are other reasons to fix the playing field. “Sand mining is the largest extractive industry on the planet. Yet most people never thought of it, even in passing, and neither did most decision-makers,” a WWF spokesperson said. “They should, because not only is the global economy built on sand, but illegal and unsustainable sand mining also poses a risk to rivers and coasts around the world, as well as to people, economies and the nature that depend on them”.
Moreover, illegally mined sand has no guarantee of quality; one aggregate may look like another but be completely unusable based on its true composition, or potentially unsafe to use.
“These illegal operations can also devastate local economies through unfair competition and employment practices, which can bankrupt legal competitors and leave ruins when the operation closes,” Pienaar says.
The Real Impacts of Illegal Sand Mining
“It is extraordinary how few people are aware of the scale of the global sand mining industry, its fundamental importance to our societies and economies, and its substantial social and environmental costs” , says Richard Lee, WWF’s freshwater communications manager.
“Aggregates, mainly sand and gravel, are the second most exploited natural resource in the world after water, representing approximately 40 to 50 billion metric tons per year. Their use has tripled over the past two decades due to urbanization, population growth, land reclamation and the infrastructure boom.
Lee agrees with Pienaar’s assessment of the issues, noting that the industry as a whole remains extremely murky with insufficient regulations and oversight in most countries paving the way for sand mining operations unsustainable and often illegal, which have serious impacts on people and nature.
In South Africa, Pienaar says illegal extraction of sand from rivers can alter the course of a river and lead to an altered structure that can erode banks and cause damage to vegetation and arable land.
In addition, sedimentation can clog channels and prevent fish from accessing clean water. For ASPASA, these and other factors provide a compelling argument for the government to crack down on unscrupulous operators, but any action seems hopelessly unlikely.
“Unsustainable sand mining is a concrete threat to rivers, deltas and coastal areas around the world, and to the people and nature that depend on them,” comments Lee. “Largely unregulated and ungoverned, sand mining results in significant social and environmental impacts, ranging from shrinking deltas to loss of biodiversity.
“This vast industry puts incredible pressure on rivers, deltas and coasts in many parts of the world, leading to erosion of rivers and beaches, falling water tables, saltwater intrusion into aquifers and increasing threats to freshwater and marine fisheries”.
Whichever direction the world’s miners seek to move in, these changes must be made with caution, due both to the pervasiveness of sand mining and the nature of diversity in parts of the world. world where it is mined. “As many in the global sand research sphere have pointed out, sand is particularly difficult to regulate,” says Dr Kate Dawson, LSE Visiting Fellow and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Huddersfield .
“It goes without saying, but in this context, it is important to remember that countries in Africa are diverse, with different histories, different political systems and different environments,” she continues. “Therefore, any attempt to engage in sand regulation must take this diversity seriously, recognizing that local responses will be important.
A safe and regulated future
ASPASA rightly points out that its certified members are required to be fully compliant with the law and have additional management structures in place to ensure compliance and sustainability.
“They are regularly audited against international health, safety and environmental audit management standards, and regularly participate in quality audits and other technical audits that ensure they provide a professional service,” explains Pienaar.
His plea is that sand buyers preferentially use ASPASA members. Lee takes a similar approach, saying that with the world facing climate and natural crises, it is essential that countries begin to curb unsustainable and illegal sand mining and reduce its impacts on their societies and ecosystems.
“Left unregulated and ungoverned, the world’s largest extractive industry will continue to impact rivers, deltas and coasts, and the people and nature that depend on them,” he said. .
Yet recent history suggests that positive changes can be made, which could set a precedent for future changes, or at least demonstrate that more effective regulation is at least possible. As Dawson puts it, “looking for examples of regulatory change and implementation can be incredibly insightful.”
“Halinishi Yusuf was instrumental in bringing about change in Makueni County, Kenya, as Director of the Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilization Authority,” says Dawson. “The success of this program is a testament to this local sensibility and grounded engagement with people and the environment.”