Shifting Sands

By Harbinson, Rod | New Internationalist, June 2017 | Go to article overview

Shifting Sands


Harbinson, Rod, New Internationalist


'Sweetheart Island is the only place we can fish for crab now. Many islands have been lost to the sand-dredging already,' said fisher Lim Lon. With its houses on stilts strung out over the water, the isolated village of Koh Sralao in Cambodia's southwest Koh Kong Province is far from the tranquil backwater that it might appear at first sight. It is at the forefront of a movement to halt the sand-dredging which, since 2007, has blighted this and many other communities along Cambodia's rivers and coastline.

As our fishing boat sailed upriver through an abandoned dredging site, the mangroves lay fallen and dying where the river bank had collapsed. A farmer complained that his riverside fields had receded 20 metres from erosion since the arrival of the dredgers.

'Before the dredging, the water was only two metres [deep] or less, and in some places there were sand banks, but now the water is at least five metres and some places eight,' explained another fisher, Phen Sophany. 'When the water reaches five to seven metres, there are only a few male crabs. Crabs need shallower waters for breeding.' Even when the dredgers have moved on, the crabs don't return.

Studies have demonstrated that if sand extraction is greater than the rate at which it is naturally replaced by sedimentary deposits, then erosion will take place, not just at the dredging site, but upriver and downstream too, largely because the greater river capacity increases the speed of the flow, exacerbating erosion and increasing the potential for flooding.1

'It still impacts us when the dredgers are working upstream, because all the muddy water flows downstream - and crabs can't live in muddy water,' explained Sophany.

By 2015, dredging was hitting the community hard. Catches were down, and many families had taken out high-interest loans from loan sharks to stay in business. Others 'collected water snails in the mangroves, but now there are no snail stocks'. Some quit crab fishing altogether to seek work in the new economic zone factories in Koh Kong city, a two-hour boat ride away.

Booming demand

Despite a seeming abundance of sand, and its low cost relative to other mined commodities, rapidly escalating global demand has led to pressure on supplies, and salt-free river sand is particularly prized for use in construction work.

Asia's development boom is a key global driver of global sand demand - with Singapore by far the biggest importer. In 2012 academic Pascal Peduzzi estimated that 'the world's use of aggregates for concrete can be estimated at 25.9 billion to 29.6 billion tonnes a year - enough to build a wall 27 metres high by 27 metres wide around the equator.' He estimates that between 47 and 59 billion tonnes of aggregate and sand is mined every year.2

Satisfying Singapore's hunger for sand led neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia to experience dramatic environmental impacts at home - including, in Indonesia's case, the disappearance of entire islands. One by one, neighbouring countries stopped exporting to Singapore, leaving regional countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma and Cambodia to replace supplies.

And in a bid to open up a new supply front, in March a Singaporean company reportedly held talks with the government of Bangladesh to explore a nationwide sand-dredging deal.3

Escalating activism

In April 2015, when activists from NGO Mother Nature offered to help stop the sanddredging works, many in Koh Sralao were only too keen to form a partnership. Together, they went from one sand-dredging barge to the next, demanding that they leave. To their surprise, the sand-miners complied. It was later discovered that, with no licence to dredge in the area, companies feared being exposed.

Mother Nature then started receiving calls about large-scale dredging operations from communities further west on the Andeung Teuk River. When activists arrived, they found more than 60 sand barges owned by the Direct Access sand-mining company. …

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