At the start of February 2022, South African sand mining association ASPASA made an unusual statement, one that challenges the conventional role of an industry membership body. It called for less mining. 

ASPASA says illegal sand mining is taking a damaging toll in South Africa. Unprotected pits create drowning hazards for people and animals, and the failure of law enforcement has led to increasingly sophisticated and larger scale operations. 

There are other challenges. ASPASA claims lawless sand mining remains under-reported and under-enforced, placing legal mines at both financial and sustainable disadvantage. What’s the use in driving proactively for the right environmental and social governance (ESG) performance and protecting health and safety, to be regularly undercut by unprosecuted operators on the fly? 

For a more equitable, sustainable and safer industry, these problems need fixing. What solutions are on the cards? 

Solving South Africa’s sand dilemma 

“One of the most effective ways to fight back is to hold our sand suppliers accountable and to obtain proof of purchase from a reputable and legally compliant sand producer,” comments Nico Pienaar, director of ASPASA in a statement. Essentially, he’s referencing legal certification.  

“Compliant and licenced sand miners are required to comply with stringent legal requirements to protect water sources, protect the environment and surrounding communities, as well as ensuring a safe workplace to all who enter the site,” continues Pienaar They are subjected to regular inspections by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy and this cost of compliance can be substantial.” 

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These royalties, taxes and licensing add a price premium to sand, ironically driving illegally-mined resources into a more attractive market position. “There are however a number of catches that buyers need to be aware of that begin with the overall unsustainability of these types of operations; here today and gone tomorrow,” Pienaar says. 

There are further reasons to fix the playing field. Sand mining is the largest extractive industry on the planet. Yet most people have never given it even a passing thought, and nor have most decision makers,” says a WWF spokesperson. “They should because not only is the world’s economy built on sand but illegal and unsustainable sand mining also poses a risk to rivers and coastlines across the globe, and to the people, economies and nature that depend on them.” 

In addition, illegally mined sand has no quality guarantee; one aggregate may resemble another yet be totally unusable based on its true composition, or potentially dangerous to use.  

“These illegal operations may also devastate local economies through unfair competition and employment practices, that can put legal competitors out of business and leave ruins when the operation closes down,” says Pienaar. 

The true 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 freshwater communications manager. 

“Aggregates, primarily sand and gravel, are the second most exploited natural resource in the world after water, amounting to an estimated 40 to 50 billion metric tonnes per year. Their use has tripled in the last two decades due to urbanisation, population growth, land reclamation and the infrastructure boom.” 

Lee agrees with Pienaar’s assessment on the problems, noting that the industry as a whole remains extremely murky with insufficient regulations and oversight in most countries, paving the way for unsustainable and often illegal sand mining operations, which severely impact people and nature. 

In South Africa, Pienaar says the illegal extraction of sand from rivers can alter the course of a river and lead to an altered structure that may erode river banks and cause damage to vegetation and arable land. 

In addition, sedimentation can block channels and deny fish access to clean water. For ASPASA, these and other factors provide an overwhelming argument for government to crackdown on unscrupulous operators, but any action seems vexingly less than forthcoming.  

“Unsustainable sand mining is a concrete threat to rivers, deltas and coastal areas across the world and the people and nature that rely on them,” comments Lee. “Largely unregulated and ungoverned, sand mining leads to significant social and environmental impacts, from shrinking deltas to the loss of biodiversity.  

“This vast industry is putting incredible pressure on rivers, deltas and coasts in many parts of the world,  resulting in river and beach erosion, lower water tables, salt water intrusion into aquifers and increased threats to freshwater and marine fisheries.” 

Whatever direction the world’s miners look to move in, these changes must be made with caution, due to both the ubiquity of sand mining and the nature of the diversity in parts of the world where it is mined. “As has been pointed out by many in the global sphere of sand research, sand is particularly difficult to regulate,” explains Dr Kate Dawson, a visiting fellow at LSE and a post-doc at the University of Huddersfield. 

“This might go without saying, but in this context, it’s important to reiterate that countries across Africa are diverse, with different histories, different political systems and different environments,” she continues. “Therefore, any attempt to engage with the regulation of sand needs to take this diversity seriously, recognising that place-based responses will be important. 

A safe, regulated future 

ASPASA points out, reasonably enough, that its certified members are required to be fully legally compliant and to have additional management structures in place to ensure compliance and sustainability.  

“They are regularly audited against international standards for health, safety and environmental audits management, as well as regularly participating in quality audits and other technical audits that ensure they provide professional service,” says Pienaar. 

His plea is that sand buyers make preferential use of ASPASA members. Lee takes a similar tack, arguing that with the world facing climate and nature crises, it is critical that countries start to rein in 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 says. 

Yet recent history suggests that positive changes can be made, which could set a precedent for future change, or at least demonstrate that more effective regulation is at least possible. As Dawson puts it, “looking to examples of regulatory change and implementation can be incredibly insightful.” 

“Halinishi Yusuf has been instrumental in generating change in Makueni County, Kenya, acting as director of the Makueni County Sand Conservation and Utilization Authority,” says Dawson. “The success of this programme is testament to this place-based sensitivity and grounded engagement with people and environment.”