Whither our Sand?

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) is very concerned that exploitation of sand resources will soon render the country with increasing environmental problems and socio-economic consequences. The demand for sand and gravel continue to increase and this has brought about over-extraction and illegal sand-mining activities in Malaysia.

In 2011, a total of 1,036 permits were given out for extraction of sand and gravel with the total production amounting to 37,339,082 tonnes. Besides these official figures, millions of tonnes of sand and gravel would have been pilfered through illegal sand-mining activities and miners not abiding conditions stipulated in their permit.

Over the years, there have been news reports of sand stealing, some involving bribes or inducements for approval or to expedite approval of sand-mining permits or to refrain from taking action against those illegally mining or transporting sand. Whether illegal or legal, sand mining has changed the landscape of many areas, adversely impacted the environment and even caused accidents and deaths.

Where does all this sand end up? Sand is used in the construction industry, land reclamations, creation of artificial islands, coastline stabilization, etc. The Malaysian government prohibits export of sand except for silica sand.  However there is smuggling involved. For instance, in 2010, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) reported that it had smashed a syndicate smuggling sand into a neighbouring country.

We expect more sand will be mined for the creation of artificial islands off Tanjung Tokong by Eastern & Oriental Bhd (E&O) for the proposed Seri Tanjung Pinang Phase II development project.  The project proposal states that 33.1 million cubic metres of sand will be needed and would be sourced offshore Lumut in Perak.  In addition to destroying fishing grounds off the coast of Tanjung Tokong to make way for the project, it would also adversely impact fishing grounds offshore of Lumut.

Marine life, livelihood of fishers and the environment on the whole seems to be secondary to the developers and approving authority.

Nevertheless, the Drainage and Irrigation Department recognises that mushrooming of river sand mining activities have given rise to various problems such as river bank erosion, river bed degradation, river buffer zone encroachment, and deterioration of water quality (River Sand Mining Management Guideline, DID 2009). Environmental problems also occur when the rate of extraction of sand, gravel and other materials exceeds the rate at which natural processes generate these materials.

Channel instability and sedimentation from in-stream mining have also damaged public infrastructure such as bridges, roads and pipelines. Impacts to the biological resources include removal of fauna and alteration of the available substrate. This process can also destroy riverine vegetation, cause erosion, pollute water sources and reduce the diversity of animals supported by these habitats.

Determining the sand budget for a particular stream reach requires site-specific topographic, hydrologic, and hydraulic information. This information is used to determine the amount of sand that can be removed from the area without causing undue erosion or degradation, either at the site or at a nearby location, upstream or downstream.

Decisions on where to mine, how much and how often require the definition of a reference state, i.e. a minimally acceptable or agreed-upon physical and biological condition of the channel.

In Peninsular Malaysia, environmental impact assessments are limited to sand dredging involving an area of 50 hectares or more.   Authorities such as the Department of Environment have not carried out any study on the cumulative impacts of sand-mining to our environment.

It just seems that the sand-miners are almighty, ever-present bringing wrought to the environment because the public servants that are supposed to protect our natural resources just keep silent, are in cohorts with the miners or simply cater to the people in power for the sake of royalty received from the sales of sand.

The damage is done and even if measures are taken to rehabilitate, it will take years or decades for some streams to recover from in-stream mining.  The only way to mitigate would be to strictly monitor approval given for sand-mining and provided that the mining activities are kept within the hydraulic limits set by the natural system.

The government should also cease all reclamation projects and reject those that are being proposed because these reclamation projects involves extraction and transporting of sand from one place to build up land in another place.

We urge both the Federal and State government to revamp the law and procedure for issuing sand mining permits.   The authorities responsible in ensuring that our natural resources are protected and not exploited should carry out their duties without fear or favour.  Failure to handle the problem of sand-mining could have devastating effects on the environment, lives and livelihood.

Press Statement, 22 October 2013