|Sand mining: a multifaceted issue
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|Author:||Nissanka [ Wed Mar 08, 2006 2:46 am ]|
|Post subject:||Sand mining: a multifaceted issue|
Sand mining: a multifaceted issue
By Sarasi Wijeratne
TML / 08mar2006
Sri Lanka’s environmental issues are many and pressing. To name a few there is polythene and plastic being disposed of indiscriminately all around us, deforestation is resulting in landslides, salination of well water in the areas affected by the tsunami which affects the drinking water supply and now there is sand mining.
This is not a new phenomena. The mining of sand from the banks of rivers has been a means of livelihood for generations with the sand sold for use in the construction industry. What is alarming is the manner and extent to which this is taking place — nowhere more than on the banks of the Deduru Oya.
The Deduru Oya begins its journey in Matale and winds its way along a 40 km stretch through the Wayamba region before joining the sea. Along the way it has become home to generations of communities, many of whom live off the river, mining sand or by cultivating gotukola, bananas, vegetables and paddy.
However, these established lifestyles now hang in the balance with the rise of illegal sand mining which has seen a sharp increase recently, although it has been taking place for nearly 10 years. Today sand mining is big business. Quantities being mined are commercial and so are its purposes, given the boom in the construction industry. Controversy has arisen as to who is propagating and tacitly supporting it, with locals pointing their finger at the police in the area and some politicians.
Currently the problem appears to be acute in the Puttalam and Kurunegala Districts where the mining that is taking place is significant. A total of 3,600 cubes of sand is mined and transported collectively in the two districts every day. This can be broken down to 3,000 cubes being mined and transported from between Chilaw and Bowatte while 600 cubes are mined and transported from between Deduru Oya and Bowatte.
Locals and members of environmental pressure groups who gathered near the main Deduru Oya bridge on the Chilaw-Puttalam road complained about gangs, both locals and outsiders, arriving in boats to mine sand. The sand is dug from the banks of the river and loaded onto trucks or tractors and taken away from the site. It is subsequently transferred to tippers or lorries and taken to Colombo for sale.
It is also not unusual for the sand to be taken to a distribution point like that in the Bowatte area in the Bingiriya Pradeshiya Sabha. Here, mounds of sand can be seen in large clearings together with tractors with loads of sand. Sand mining can be a 24 hour operation. A cube of sand can fetch anything between Rs. 4,500 and Rs. 8,000 when sold in Colombo although those digging the sand are paid a fraction of this figure.
Mary Ann from Molaeliya, close to Bingiriya who is married with one child used to be paid Rs. 800 a day for digging one cube of sand. Her employer at the time had a permit. She did this for one year but for the last two years, like her husband, has had to resort to farming, where she earns half of what she used to. She has had to give up the work she engaged in traditionally as she cannot keep up with the big time sand miners.
The environmental damage caused by sand mining can be irreversible. In some areas along the river, the bank has been eroded by as much as 50 metres. A trip around some of the affected areas reveal gigantic hollows where the sand has been dug. Due to the water level in the river going down as a result of mining, salt water has entered the river from the sea and seeped into water wells, contaminating the water. The high levels of salinity means the water has become unsuitable for drinking, bathing and farming.
R. Sriyanthi Seedevi has been residing in the vicinity of the main Deduro Oya bridge on the Chilaw-Puttalam road for nearly 40 years and is angry about the effect sand mining has had on the river bank. "Sand mining on this stretch of the river bank began about five years ago and the bank has eroded by about 50 metres since," she said.
The mining is also telling on the giant bridge situated in Chilaw which was opened in 1977. An inspection by the Road Development Authority has revealed that the bridge has sunk. Locals fear its fate will be the same as that of the Nikaweratiya Bridge 50 kilometres away which is close to collapsing due to sand mining
According to President, Mihisara Parisera Sanvidanaya, D. Sampath Senaratne about 12 kilometres of land upstream from the bridge has been affected by the illegal mining. "There are about 15-20 villages along this stretch and there are about 2,000 families. About six to seven kilometres from here there used to be gotukola and banana cultivations. Because the well water has become salty due to mining the cultivations have been abandoned and the families who earned an income from it have now become destitute," he said.
High levels of salinity
Due to the high levels of salinity in the well water, since the sea is only about one and a half kilometres away, these villagers are also unable to use it for drinking and bathing as they used to and have to bring the water from other areas. "We have complained to all levels of authority, from the AGA, grama sevaka, even the IG and the lower ranks of police but they simply ignore the issue and no steps are taken to stop the operation. I have even received death threats," said Senaratne.
Further on from Chilaw, close to Muneswaram, is the little town of Ariyagama through which the Deduru Oya meanders along. The village had a pump house with four tube wells each with a capacity of about 20-22,000 litres supplying 30,000 villagers with water. When the river bank was being eroded the pump house was washed away together with two tube wells. When the water level in the river is low and the salinity is high, usually around July and August, the water supply to the village is affected and supply restricted to a mere one hour.
Indiscriminate sand mining can also destroy a nation’s heritage as evidenced at Kottabaddamuna in the Bingiriya area. Here a stretch of logs dating back to the times of King Parakramabahu which had been submerged in the Deduru Oya had surfaced due to sand mining. Today only a section of it remains, jutting out from the receding waters of the river.
According to a legal source from the Bingiriya area, to mine sand legally a permit is required. The Geologiocal Survey and Mines Bureau has to first identify sites where sand mining can be carried out and then furnish a report to the local AGA who then issues a permit. Permits are required for both the mining and transportation of sand.
The permit for mining should state where the mining can take place and the quantity that can be mined while the permit for transportation is required to state the quantity of sand which can be transported and the number of trips the transporting vehicle can make. However, according to this source problems arise when the permits issued do not state these details leaving room for the system to be manipulated.
Illegal sand mining carries a fine of between Rs 1,500 to Rs. 100,000. However this is at the discretion of the magistrates, within whose jurisdiction sand mining falls. Reportedly, magistrates in the Kuliyapitiya and Hettipola magistrates courts are very strict. However arrests and convictions are low, with no more than two to three offenders being convicted each day. Legal sources believe this figure should be around 10 a day.
Locals attribute these low rates of conviction to the alleged complicity of the police in the whole issue. Locals and local pressure groups allege the police are also involved in aspects of sand mining which takes place very publicly. They allege although the police have the power to curb such operations they are not doing so because they themselves are involved in sand mining or they are being influenced politically.
All ranks of police officers from the OIC down to the constable are being accused of malpractice. At one police station in the areas concerned the OIC had been relieved of his duties after it had been discovered he was transporting sand to Colombo.
It is alleged that police assistance is given at the mining and transportation stages. According to the legal source, at the mining stage police do not actively arrest and prosecute the offenders. At the transportation stage, they do not check the lorries and tippers transporting sand and even when they do the offenders allegedly bribe the police and are allowed to drive on.
The police though feels differently about all this. Public Liaison Officer at the Bingiriya police station, R. S Wijayasinghe said, "All five fingers of your hand are not straight." Indicating that they are active in combating the problem, he said the police had collected fines amounting to Rs. 650,000 from prosecuting sand miners. He was unable to provide any statistics about the number of prosecutions.
During a meeting with the clergy headed by the Ven. Sathkorala Maha Disawe Adikarana Sanganayake Malagama Attadassi and local pressure groups comprising farmers, school teachers, vice principals and principals at the Bingiriya Raja Maha Viharaya, the havoc caused to villagers’ lives by illegal sand mining was brought to light even further.
Accounts of how villagers have to cover their noses and mouths to stop dust inhalation and death and injury abound. More than 10 people have died and others have been injured from collisions with speeding lorries transporting sand on village roads. A recent victim was a science teacher from Bingiriya Madya Maha Vidyalaya, M.P Saranapala, a 57-year-old father of two children.
Because of the speeds at which the vehicles travel on the roads, parents are afraid to let their children go to school by themselves. They claim that 100 vehicles transporting sand travelling in a convoy make roads impassable. The group claims that although roads in the area are being upgraded, this is being done selectively with only those roads used to transport sand benefiting. However these roads have no road markings or road signs and no speed limits.
The clergy among the group touched on another dark side, the introduction of drugs to the youth. Children as young as 14 have been found selling drugs and the village elders hold the drivers of the vehicles transporting sand responsible for bringing drugs into the village. At a recent sports meet in a local school 75 percent of the children had been high on drugs
The group wants to make this problem a national issue. They insist it is not their aim to stop the mining of sand but they want it carried out responsibly. They are calling for all mining of sand to be stopped until tests are carried out on the Deduru Oya to identify where sand can be found for mining. They are also calling for the rehabilitation of those affected, that locals should get priority for sand and that the rules governing the mining of sand be implemented effectively.
Illegal sand mining has become a multifaceted issue. It is damaging to the environment and has shown to have social, cultural and political implications. The drive to combat it has to be an ongoing one if there are going to be lasting solutions.
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