On January 16, about 250 residents of Thet Thit Kyun village tract in Bago Region sailed in wooden boats on the Ayeyarwady River, to Shwedaung. They shouted slogans and brandished placards that read, “stop sand mining in the Ayeyarwady River,” “stop corruption in giving licenses for mining” and “protect the rights of local fishermen and victims of riverbank erosion.”
“We don’t want any more mining here,” one of the protesters, U Thein Lwin, told Frontier, as those around him threatened to destroy the dredging boats. “Our land is collapsing around us, and no one from the government is doing anything to stop it.”
There were no sand dredging boats to be seen on the Ayeyarwady that day as the aggrieved fishers and farmers motored towards the Shwedaung Township office of the Directorate of Water Resources and Improvement of River Systems (DWIR). They were demanding an immediate halt to operations that they believed had triggered the collapse of their villages and plantations.
Since 2010, a construction boom in Myanmar has fueled a sharp increase in the extraction of sand from the Ayeyarwady that is then used in cement and asphalt. Environmental groups say this dredging is destabilizing the river and placing stress on the Ayeyarwady Delta, the country’s main rice producing region. Experts warn that the rate of sand mining in the Ayeyarwady has already reached an unsustainable level and is projected to increase as development continues.
This environmental crisis is occurring against a backdrop of exponential growth of sand mining in rivers throughout Asia. The practice is so damaging that it has been banned in many developed countries. In Myanmar, unless it is sustainably managed, sand mining could starve the delta of precious sediment and endanger both the river’s ecosystems and the 34 million people who live in its basin.
‘My land was where those boats are’
Ko Htain Lin scrambles down a narrow path carved into a sheer 30-foot (9.1 meter) wall of sand. On his back he carries a sack stuffed with corn he has grown, which he empties into a boat moored on the bank. Above him, his field extends dramatically to the edge of the cliff; last year, half of his land tumbled into the river.
Htain Lin lives in Anouk Kone, a village in Bago Region’s Padaung Township, on the opposite bank of the Ayeyarwady to Shwedaung. He points to the river, where about 12 boats are extracting aggregate.
“My land was once where those boats are now,” he says. A group of farmers who accompanied Frontier to see Htain Lin’s land said they had been lobbying the government to ban sand mining for years, but their efforts had been futile.
The farmers recalled a visit from Bago Region Chief Minister U Win Thein in 2018 to inaugurate a solar project. The farmers said Win Thein told them he could not stop the mining. The regional government needed tax income and the construction sector in Yangon needed sand and gravel.
The secretary of the Pyay River Gravel and Sand Production Association, U War Win, told Frontier that sand miners were doing nothing wrong. “We never take more sand than we should, so there is no risk to the river or residents, and we all pay tax,” he said.
War Win said he saw no connection between Pyay’s collapsing riverbanks, and sand extraction. “The government approved our operations, so in our minds, erosion and changes to the waterways are not related to our business.”
About 10 kilometers downstream from Anouk Kone is Thet Thit Kyun village tract, whose residents protested in January. There, U Hla Win, 60, explained how he grew up in a village that no longer exists.
After the community’s land fell into the river in 1998, the junta banned sand mining in the area, but the practice resumed in 2010, he said. Since then, about 200 houses have fallen into the river. Hla Win lives with relatives in the increasingly crowded ward of Si Thar, where two or three houses are now built on each plot.
Like many of Si Thar’s residents, Hla Win was once a fisherman, but he said the extraction of sand had made it hard to fish. The aggregate particles released into the river by dredging boats create small sandbanks that catch on fishing nets and alter the water turbidity. Hla Win said there were fewer fish now than five years ago, and they were smaller in size. The number of fishermen in Si Thar has fallen over the same period from 86 to 26, he said.
In 2015, the Bago Region government spent US$600,000 (about K918 million at current exchange rates) building a sandbar in the middle of the river on which former fishermen grow watermelons, tomatoes and beans.
U Ohn Kyaw, the former ward administrator, told Frontier that sand mining close to the sandbar was already causing its collapse. “If the sandbar disappears, our entire ward will fall into the river,” he said.
Lawmakers are beginning to pay attention to the issue. Pyithu Hluttaw MP Daw Khin Hnin Thit (National League for Democracy, Padaung) told Frontier that aggregate mining in her constituency posed a threat to rule of law and stability. She said she is advocating for better management of the industry, and protection for those who suffer the consequences.
“I’m not an expert, but it seems that unsuitable regulations and a lack of checks and balances have led to conflict, riverbank erosion and a shortage of fish,” she said.
The Bago Region Hluttaw Committee for Natural Resources, Forestry and Environmental Conservation plans to investigate the licensing process and the effects of sand mining, including the ensuing conflict.
“We’re not afraid of any miners, or people who are conducting illegal activities in the river,” said committee chair Daw Hla Hla Win (Shwe Kyin-2, NLD).
‘A huge supermarket’
The Ayeyarwady is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in Southeast Asia, and its basin is home to two-thirds of the country’s population. It is also one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world.
The river begins in China at a height of 5,000 meters. From there it flows along steep tributaries, a process that releases high levels of sediment. Rapid deforestation and mining activity upstream create extra sediment, which accumulates as the river flattens out in southern Kachin State.
This reduced depth causes the river to widen creating a situation in which there is too much sediment in the river’s middle reaches, aggravating floods, making navigation difficult, and which leads to riverbank erosion, particularly in Magway, Bago and Ayeyarwady regions.
Marc Goichot of the World Wildlife Fund Greater Mekong Program said that while some river erosion occurs naturally, “it’s fair enough to assume a lot of the riverbank erosion downstream is linked to the extraction of large volumes of gravel and sand.”
Sediment ranges from tiny particles that settle to form clay, to silt, sand, pebbles and large stones. Coarser sediment is scarcer and plays a greater role in the stability of the river; it is also the most valued by the construction industry.
The river naturally sorts sediment into grains of different sizes, creating what Goichot described as “a huge supermarket, in which extractors know exactly where to look.”
The WWF estimates about 20 million tons, or about 10 percent of the total sediment flowing through the Ayeyarwady river is extracted every year.
The reduction in sediment — which feeds fish and fertilizes crops – also starves the delta of the nutrients it needs to sustain the country’s food supply. A decrease in mangrove cover is already placing stress on the delta. The reduced flow of sediment is weakening it further, making it more vulnerable to tropical storms and rising sea levels, according to WWF.
Goichot said, “We were surprised to see signs of stress already.” If the delta was hit today by a tropical storm of the same intensity as Cyclone Nargis, which left about 138,000 people dead and missing when it battered the delta in 2008, the damage would be even greater, he said.
The solution is not as simple as banning sand mining. Myanmar, like other developing countries, faces a dilemma: sand mining is placing rivers under threat, but is also providing a resource needed for economic development.
About 80 percent of concrete and asphalt is sand, and because it is bulky and difficult to transport, it is usually extracted from the most convenient local source. In Myanmar, that source is the Ayeyarwady, along which are many fast-growing cities, including several state and regional capitals. The Ayeyarwady is also the largest extraction site for sediment used in Yangon’s construction sector.
This business is lucrative: in 2017 the construction sector was worth about US$4 billion, accounting for 5.7 percent of GDP, World Bank data showed.
National policies needed
With investment and economic growth likely to increase demand for aggregate in the years ahead, experts say national policies are needed to ensure the sustainable extraction of sand. Currently, state and regional governments have the authority to distribute licenses as they see fit.
Applications for mining licenses are submitted at the township level. The regional waterways department (DWIR) then conducts a hydrographic survey and provides recommendations on whether to issue a license.
Different licensing practices occur between states and regions. In Pyay, miners told Frontier that in addition to production fees and tax, township and ward administrators asked them for donations of up to K3 million (US$1,950) towards school or road projects.
In Magway, gravel is of a higher quality than elsewhere in Myanmar, making it a desirable area for miners. This fuels what one resident in Magway called “a kind of corruption” whereby the General Administration Department (GAD) sells extraction licenses to the highest bidder. In response, a spokesperson for Magway GAD, U Sein Min Zin, said, “This is not the case. All companies pay a fixed amount for their licenses.”
The states and region-level DWIR oversees licensing compliance. U Toe Aung Lin, DWIR director for Mandalay Region, told Frontier that teams comprising of officials from the DWIR, GAD and Myanmar Police Force patrol the river three or four times a month during the dry season, but that patrols cease in the monsoon. Anyone found mining sand without a license is charged under the 2006 Conservation of Water Resources and Rivers Law, he said.
In 2017, there were six or seven cases of illegal extraction in Mandalay Region, mostly in tributaries of the Ayeyarwady upstream of Mandalay, near Madaya and Singu. “Most illegal sand dredging occurs in the river’s tributaries, because everyone can see the main channel easily,” he told Frontier at his office. “But there is a very long tract of almost 340 miles (547km) under our administration, so I don’t know exactly how much illegal sand mining is happening.”
When Frontier travelled by boat from Mandalay to Magway region, there were two boats extracting aggregate beneath the Nyaung U-Pakkoku bridge, close to its piles. Toe Aung Lin said this was illegal and that the local DWIR would intervene. Several hours later, the boats were still sucking up gravel from the riverbed.
Those who Frontier interviewed for this story agreed that the main problem is not unlicensed operations, but the extraction of sand by licensed operators beyond the limits of their licenses. This is challenging to monitor, however, and enforcement tends to be driven by community complaints.
It is also unclear whether sand miners are following environmental guidelines. Anyone extracting over 1,000 cubic meters of rock, gravel or sand a year is required to submit an initial environmental examination to the Environmental Conservation Department (ECD) in order to obtain an Environmental Clearance Certificate. Operations extracting above 50,000 cubic meters need to conduct an environmental impact assessment. A single boat could extract up to 275 cubic meters each time it heads out on to the river.
One civil society group, Magway EITI Watch Group, asked the ECD for information on whether sand miners are following environmental impact assessment guidelines, but the group’s coordinator, Ko Olar, said officials have been uncooperative. The lack of transparency around sand mining created opportunities for corruption, said Ko Olar.
Frontier’s attempts to obtain data from government officials on mining licenses and the annual volume of sand extracted from the Ayeyarwady were also unsuccessful. In December 2018, Frontier spoke to regional waterways (DWIR) director U Tun Naing, who said his department would collect the data requested. One month later he said he couldn’t provide information because the GAD was responsible for licensing.
GAD director and spokesperson U Aung Theik Win received Frontier’s request for data but refused to answer further calls. Calls to the main GAD office number and a visit to the Mandalay regional GAD office were also unsuccessful.
U Tin Myint, the former head of the GAD and current deputy minister of the Office of the Union Government offered to provide data from each state and region. By press time, his department had not yet provided the figures.
Lack of access to data also affects those responsible for managing the Ayeyarwady River. Toe Aung Lin, DWIR director for Mandalay Region, said he had no contact with his counterparts in other states and regions, which made his job “very difficult.” Adding to the challenge, different ministries with authority over different aspects of river management do not always share information.
A report published by the National Water Resources Committee (NWRC) in 2017 identified significant gaps in available data. It also found that the present rate of sand and gravel extraction is “near or beyond the bounds of sustainability” with increasing erosion being recorded near the mouths of the distributaries.
The NWRC report called for a sediment monitoring system that collects representative and accurate information. This will be particularly important if large-scale hydropower dams are built on the river. Dams prevent sediment from moving freely, and if sediment is also mined downstream, it can have a compounding effect.
The WWF says a common vision for the future is urgently needed. In a 2018 report that highlights the imminent dangers facing the Ayeyarwady, it warns that “with looming decisions around hydropower development, industrial expansion, fisheries and in general, economic growth in the country, decision-makers cannot afford to operate in isolation.”
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. A version of this story was published by Frontier Myanmar on 31 January 2019.