Illegal sand mining digs away at Vietnam's rice basket

By Ngan Anh   March 18, 2018 | 08:58 pm PT
Illegal sand mining digs away at Vietnam's rice basket
Lucrative sand trade has spawned illegal mining of the material in Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress
Up to 500 hectares of the Mekong Delta is being swept away each year.

The lucrative sand trade has led to an increase in illegal mining across Vietnam, wreaking havoc along the country’s waterways.

In 2016 alone, Vietnamese police caught nearly 3,000 people dredging without permits or in protected areas around the country, according to National Geographic.

Many of the miners, legal or otherwise, are ordinary people just trying to make a living, and some even bring their families along on their boats as they travel up and down the rivers.

Nguyen Van Tu, 39, used to dredge sand from the Tien River, until police shut him down. “The business was so good,” National Geographic quoted him as saying. At times he pulled in as much as $13,000 per month. “Such easy money. Think, you just suck sand out, and you got money. Simple.”

Erosion in the Mekong Delta is becoming more and more serious, and up to 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of land is being swept away each year, according to official data from the agriculture ministry.

The decline of annual floodwaters that build up silt in the region and sand exploitation have been blamed as the two main reasons for the disaster.

In Vietnam, sand mining poses an additional danger: It’s contributing to the slow disappearance of the Mekong Delta, home to 20 million people and the source of half of all the country’s food and much of the rice that feeds the rest of southeast Asia.

Last March, Deputy Prime Minister Truong Hoa Binh acknowledged that large-scale illegal sand mining continues to take place partly because local administrations have “loosened their management, covered up and offered protection” to the miners.

Vietnam needs about 100 million cubic meters of sand every year for construction projects across the country.

The Ministry of Construction warned that Vietnam is in danger of running out of construction sand due to over-exploitation and rapid development.

“At the current rate of natural sand exploitation, domestic supplies could be depleted by 2020,” said head of the Department of Construction Materials Pham Van Bac.

To deal with the situation, Vietnam is looking at producing artificial sand from sedimentary rock, which is abundant in the south of the country.

Artificial sand has been used to make asphalt and concrete roads and construction concrete in many parts of the world, including Canada, the U.S., Germany, Australia, China and Japan, according to Vietnam’s Institute of Transport Science and Technology.

The cost of industrially produced sand can be 10-15 percent lower than exploiting natural sand, said the institute.

According to the Ministry of Construction, authorized sand exploitation only meets 45 percent of domestic demand.

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