Apart from serious degradation of river systems, there was compelling evidence to suggest that some coastal cities, especially Durban, were at risk of having beaches, property and other facilities washed away by storms and coastal erosion because of unsustainable sand-mining. File photo: Independent Media

Durban - The time has come for the government to consider a total ban on any sand mining in South African rivers to curb serious environmental damage and the growing risk of severe erosion damage to coastal cities like Durban.

This is the recommendation from a senior researcher from the South African Institute of International Affairs that could have far-reaching consequences for the country’s construction industry and sand-mining companies.

Apart from serious degradation of river systems, there was compelling evidence to suggest that some coastal cities, especially Durban, were at risk of having beaches, property and other facilities washed away by storms and coastal erosion because of unsustainable sand-mining.

“The denudation of Durban’s beaches and the erosion of its dunes will cause damage to coastal properties and infrastructure and have a significant impact on the tourism industry,” according to a recent policy briefing by researcher Romy Chevallier.

She notes that the natural flow of river sand that feeds and replenishes Durban’s beaches has already been reduced by two thirds because of large water storage dams like Midmar and Inanda, and by the growing volume of sand that is mined from local rivers.

She cites a 2008 study by the CSIR which found that 12 large dams on major rivers around eThekwini trapped at least one third of normal river sand flow.

Sand supply had been reduced by a further 33 percent by more than 30 sand mining operations on eThekwini’s rivers. This study calculated that sand miners removed at least 400 000m3 of sand in 2008 alone, whereas the current natural replenishment was around 140 000m3 a year.

“The implications are far-reaching... in total, the present remaining sand yield is only a third of what it should be,” said CSIR researcher Andre Theron.

The CSIR study raised concerns that some beaches south of Durban had been retreating at a rate of almost 1m a year since the early 1970s. They were being eroded faster than the rate of natural sand replenishment from rivers.

Costs

In her more recent paper, Chevallier says sand (mainly for construction) is one of South Africa’s most valuable resources, yet there has been a “drastic increase” in mostly illegal sand mining in rivers, valleys and estuaries.

She says the current market price for sand does not reflect the hidden costs to the environment and society and that the government should take urgent steps to control illegal mining and “eventually prohibit the extraction of all river and estuarine sand”.

Her concerns were echoed in a recent Master’s thesis by government environmental official Stewart Green, who said it was a “false perception” that sand was a renewable resource, since it took thousands of years for sand to form from the natural weathering of rock.

Although sand mining was controlled, on paper, by a variety of mineral, environmental and planning laws, the Department of Mineral Affairs took precedence.

“The conflict has been fuelled by an attitude of intransigence on the part of the mineral regulators and one is saddled with the sense that the mineral regulators view mining as of such economic importance to South Africa that it cannot possibly be put at the mercy of environmental and land-use regulators who may veto and render mining rights useless. They (the Department of Mineral Resources) are certainly ruthless in defence of their mandate.”

Green said he had personal experience of the simmering conflict on river sand mining between the department and the various departments of environmental affairs, nationally and provincially.

“The regulatory system governing sand mining, in particular, can never be truly effective unless the conflict between mineral regulation and environmental regulation is resolved.

“While this conflict festers, environmental regulators will continue to be hamstrung in their efforts to contain the devastating environmental impacts of sand mining.”

In his 2008 CSIR research paper, Theron also called for government intervention to ensure that the market price of sand took proper account of hidden costs to society.

One way was by introducing a new “sand tax”, or to impose strict government quotas on the number of sand mining permits as a way to encourage the industry to explore alternative supplies from non-river land sources or even offshore dredging.

“This study does not deny the importance of sand as an input. However, increasing demand is resulting in unsustainable mining rates.”

The Mercury