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Drowning in mindless sand-mining - Sunday Observer

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Author Topic: Drowning in mindless sand-mining - Sunday Observer  (Read 224 times)
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« on: January 27, 2011, 04:37:20 pm »

The degradation is fast and furious not due to natural causes but wilfully man-made with scant regard for the consequences. While it is happening all over the country, the main focus seems to be the Maha Oya which falls into the sea north of Negombo, with prohibitions being violated with impunity.

Sand-mining with gay abandon is the culprit, the Sunday Times understands, even though the highest court in the land, seeing the irreversible damage of this man-made threat had brought in not only conditions but also prohibitions.

On the pretext of feeding the apparent construction boom, unscrupulous people are brazenly violating the conditions and prohibitions of the Supreme Court and over-exploiting this resource, lamented environmentalists. The cost to the country cannot be gauged in simple terms, they pointed out.

The Maha Oya, rising in the Kandy-Nawalapitiya area, flows 125 km through the Kegalle and Negombo districts. It is one of the 103 rivers in the country, classified as one of the 36 major river basins. Its important ecosystems include estuaries, coastal wetlands, inlets and beaches.

How and why has this situation arisen? The contributory factor for the floodgates of sand to open has been the non-compliance by the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) of standard requirements, other environmentalists alleged. Anyone seeking to mine or transport sand for commercial purposes has to obtain a licence from the GSMB.

The GSMB is renewing the licences of so-called traditional sand-miners without carrying out an assessment of the availability of sand. The sustainability factor is not being looked at and this has led to illegal sand-mining in unauthorized areas, an environmentalist explained.

The GSMB is not monitoring sand-mining or its transport and thus it is happening on all days, whereas earlier mining was allowed only on certain days of the week, with artisan mining falling by the wayside and certain types of mechanized mining using suckers being carried out, another pointed out.

Artisan or manual mining is carried out by miners wading into the water or dropping down from barges and extracting sand by using baskets or buckets. This is in contrast to mechanized mining where heavy machinery such as backhoes is used to dig out large tracts of sand, the Sunday Times understands.
Fortunately, mechanized sand-mining is still prohibited, another said, and the urgent need is to crack down on the use of suckers etc.

A strong indictment of the situation at Maha Oya comes in the form of a 'Monitoring Report' compiled by the Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL). River sand-mining has been observed all over the Maha Oya, points out the report on observations from September 1, 2009 to as close as January 10, this year, stating that sand-mining is being carried out even on days where it is not allowed.

The report on the status of the Maha Oya comes on the instructions of the Supreme Court with reference to an ongoing case. Illegal mining activities are being carried out within the first kilometre from the river mouth and one km on both sides of the Kochchikade bridge, the Sunday Times learns, despite strict prohibitions.

The no-mining zone, 500 metres on both sides of the Maha Oya from the Bambukuliya water intake, declared by the GSMB, is being violated at will, with illegal mining taking place. This no-mining zone was declared after realizing the devastation that would follow if the Bambukuliya water storage tank collapses due to such activity, an environmentalist pointed out. It is from this storage tank that water is provided to vast areas such as the Katunayake Free Trade Zone.

The team has also observed a number of sand and clay mined pits, some still in operation and others abandoned, both contiguous to the river and inland. The pits varied from one-acre extents to as huge as 140 acres, with depths going down from 5 feet to 40 feet.

"Some pits are in no-mining zones within the first km from the river mouth," pointed out an EFL spokesperson. "An analysis of the water quality of pits even further away indicated salinity even though they were located inland 2-2.5 km from the sea."

Ironically, an abandoned mine-pit has become the official garbage dump of the Negombo Municipal Council, further jeopardizing not only the riverine ecosystem but also people's health, it is learnt.
Referring to the "meanders" (bends) of the Maha Oya, the report states that Jambugaswatte, the first meander downstream, though a no-mining zone is severely degraded. "Sand-mining is ongoing in the river and the adjacent land area," said a Monitoring Team member. "This has changed the direction of the river flow, resulting in hydrology changes and reducing the productivity of the land due to water-filled mining pits."

Mukkama, the second meander after Jambugaswatte, has fared no better - the Maha Oya has changed direction drastically, due to unplanned and irregular river and inland mining, causing massive degradation, it is understood.

A major concern expressed by another environmentalist is the move by the GSMB to increase the quota of sand that the Divisional Secretariats could authorize for non-commercial use. Earlier, the Divisional Secretariats in the area could grant permits for the mining of only a total of 100 cubes of sand each per month, with individuals being able to apply for a maximum of two cubes each. But now the Divisional Secretariat's quota has been increased to 200 cubes per month, the environmentalist said. "This will see a splurge of activity, not only from unrestricted areas but also no-mining zones."

It is high time that relevant departments carried out a well-grounded comprehensive study of river sand-mining effects so that the nation can understand the actual long-term impacts of turning a blind eye to what is really a national disaster, urged the Chair of the Sri Lanka Water Partnership and NetWwater, Kusum Athukorala.

Pointing out that advocacy against illicit river sand-mining is carried out by concerned civil society groups and affected community groups, but this issue affects the whole nation, Ms. Athukorala stressed that illicit river sand-mining is eroding our national investment in rural infrastructure such as roads, irrigation systems and water supply schemes.

Meanwhile, numerous attempts by the Sunday Times to contact the Director-General of the GSMB or any high official proved futile.

Dangers of river sand-mining
An important threat from sand-mining is coastal erosion which leaves in its wake loss of habitats, loss of ecosystems and their services and loss of productive land. The beach from the Maha Oya going upto Waikkal, Wellamankara and Lansigama, a stretch of about 13 km, is considered the most eroded coastal area in the whole of Sri Lanka. The maximum local retreat rate of about 12 metres per year has been observed here, with the average coastal erosion being only 0.5 metres per year.

Salt-water intrusion - the depletion of sand in the river-bed causes the deepening of the river and estuaries and the lowering of the river-bed leads to salt water from the sea coming into the river. Excess salinity in the river water will alter the riverine environment, affecting the flora and fauna, destroying some species, reducing biodiversity and endangering ecosystem services.

Lack of bedload of sand to replenish the equilibrium of the coast, as it is the sediment that is transported by rivers that is deposited there. In this case it is the Maha Oya which is the main river that transports sediment to the Kochchikade-Chilaw beach stretch.



By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

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