‘Our land is collapsing around us’: Ayeyarwady at risk from rampant sand mining

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Irresponsible sand mining in the Ayeyarwady River is destroying the livelihoods of farmers and fishers and placing environmental stress on the nation's rice bowl.

By HEIN KO SOE and CLARE HAMMOND | FRONTIER

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 licences for mining" and "protect the rights of local fishermen and victims of riverbank erosion".

There were no sand dredging boats to be seen on the Ayeyarwady that day as the aggrieved fishers and farmers motored towards their destination. It was the Shwedaung Township office of the Directorate of Water Resources and Improvement of River Systems (DWIR), where they demanded an immediate halt to operations that they believed had triggered the collapse of their villages and plantations.

"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."

Since 2010, a construction boom in Myanmar has fuelled sharp growth in the extraction of sand from the Ayeyarwady that is then used in cement and asphalt. Environmental groups say this dredging is destabilising 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, but is projected to increase as development continues.

This little-reported environmental crisis is occurring against a backdrop of exponential growth in 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, it could starve the delta of precious sediment, and endanger both the river's ecosystems and the 34 million people who live in its basin.

A protest on the Ayeyarwady River against sand mining in Shwedaung Township, Bago Region was held on January 16. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

'My land was where those boats are'

Ko Htein Lin scrambles down a narrow path carved into a sheer 30-foot (9.1-metre) 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.

Htein 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 Htein Lin's land said they had been lobbying the government to ban sand mining for years, but their efforts had been futile.

When Bago Region Chief Minister U Win Thein visited their village last year to inaugurate a solar project, they said, he told them he could not stop the mining. The regional government needed tax income, he said, 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 kilometres 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.

He showed Frontier a copy of a protest letter he had sent to the General Administration Department, which is responsible for licensing sand mining.

Ko Htein Lin (right) lost half of his land to the river last year, which he blames on erosion due to sand mining. (Victoria Milko | Frontier)

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 on conflict, its chair, Dwa Hla Hla Win (Shwe Kyin-2, NLD), told Frontier. "We're not afraid of any miners, or people who are conducting illegal activities in the river," the lawmaker said.

'A huge supermarket'

The Ayeyarwady is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in Southeast Asia, and the most important river in Myanmar: 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 metres. From there it flows quickly 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 reduces its depth and causes it to widen, resulting in erosion, flooding and challenges to navigation.

Downstream of Myitkyina, and particularly between Mandalay and Yangon, rapid development has created a soaring demand for sediment, for use in concrete and asphalt.

Sediment ranges in quality from tiny particles that settle to form clay, to silt, sand, pebbles and large stones. As a rule, 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. There is no comprehensive data on how much sediment is being extracted from the Ayeyarwady, but the World Wildlife Fund estimates it is about 20 million tonnes a year, or about 10 percent of the total sediment flowing through the river.

This creates a strange situation in which there is too much sediment in the river's middle reaches, which aggravates floods and makes navigation difficult, but not enough downstream, which creates riverbank erosion, particularly in Magway, Bago and Ayeyarwady regions.

Mr Marc Goichot, of the WWF Greater Mekong Programme, 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".

The reduction in sediment also starves the delta of the nutrients it needs to sustain the country's food supply. Sediment is an essential part of the food chain: it feeds fish and fertilises crops.

Illustration by Jared Downing, photography by Victoria Milko | Frontier

Rising sea levels and a reduction in mangrove cover are 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.

When a WWF team surveyed the delta's coastline, Goichot said, it expected to find it relatively healthy because of the size of the natural sediment load, which is unusually large. "We were surprised to see signs of stress already," he said. 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.

Helpfully for sand miners, 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".

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. For now, state and regional governments have the authority to distribute licences as they see fit.

Applications for mining licences are submitted to the township-level GAD. The DWIR then conducts a hydrographic survey of the site and provides recommendations to the GAD, which makes a final decision on whether to issue a licence.

This system allows for different licensing practices 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 towards school or road projects. The production fee is K15,000 per sud (about 100 cubic feet) of gravel and K800 per sud of sand, while gravel is taxed at K2,500 per sud, and sand at K500.

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 GAD sells extraction licences to the highest bidder. A spokesperson for Magway GAD said this was not the case, however, and that all companies paid a fixed amount for their licences.

Before 2015, there was no limit to the number of sud that could be extracted from each plot, said Ms Bethia Kadoe, author of a 2018 report on sand mining in Yangon.

Since 2015, two main factors have been considered in licence applications, she said. The first is whether the area needs to be dredged as part of river management. The second is the size of the boat: each company can operate no more than two boats, each with a maximum capacity of 30 sud.

The state and region-level DWIR is responsible for monitoring compliance as part of its river training and navigation responsibilities. U Toe Aung Lin, DWIR director for Mandalay Region, told Frontier that teams comprising 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 licence 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."

Gravel is extracted from the river on to a boat in Pakokku Township, Mandalay Region. (Victoria Milko | Frontier)

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. We called Toe Aung Lin, who 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 licences. 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 metres of rock, gravel or sand a year is required to submit an initial environmental examination to the Environmental Conservation Department in order to obtain an Environmental Clearance Certificate; operations extracting above 50,000 cubic metres need to conduct an environmental impact assessment. A single boat with a capacity of 30 sud would extract up to 275 cubic metres each time it heads out on to the river.

One civil society group, Magway EITI Watch Group, has asked the ECD for information on whether sand miners are following EIA guidelines, but the group's coordinator, Ko Olar, said the department has been uncooperative. More broadly, he said that the lack of transparency around sand mining created opportunities for corruption.

Frontier's own attempts to obtain data on the number of licences and the annual volume of sand extracted from the Ayeyarwady reflect Olar's concerns. In early December, we spoke to DWIR director U Tun Naing, who said his department would collect the data we needed. One month later, after numerous telephone calls, he reneged on this offer, saying he couldn't provide information because the GAD was responsible for licensing.

GAD director and spokesperson U Aung Theik Win listened to our request for data but refused to answer further calls. Calling the GAD office number was no more useful; we were transferred between departments, with each claiming it was not their responsibility. During a visit to Mandalay, we tried to obtain data on sand mining licences from the regional GAD office, but after three hours of being shepherded between buildings, we were told to send an email, which received no response.

Finally, we tried U Tin Myint, the former head of the GAD and, since January 3, deputy minister of the Office of the Union Government. He provided a fax number and said he would ask his office to collect data from each state and region. By press time, his department was still working on our request.

U Toe Aung Lin, DWIR director for Mandalay Region. (Victoria Milko | Frontier)

Lack of access to data is not only problematic for journalists. Those responsible for managing the Ayeyarwady need figures in order to do their jobs. 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 have authority over different aspects of river management, and do not always share information.

In 2014, the National Water Resources Committee launched the Ayeyarwady Integrated River Basin Management Project with support from the World Bank, the aim of which is to strengthen development of the Ayeyarwady River basin and national water resources. A report published by the 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" and that the resilience of the Ayeyarwady Delta may be decreasing, with increasing erosion being recorded near the mouths of the distributaries.

The 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 South East Asian Press Alliance.

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