A tour to many local streams, rivers and beaches in Akwa Ibom State will reveal the increased activity of sand dredging. The intensity of the dredging venture has become scary as our waters have been reduced to mining sites with heavy excavation taking place and large spaces left beneath the earth.
Dredging is simply the digging of mud, sand, gravel, pebbles, rocks and other deposit from the bottom of the creek, lagoon sand waterways using a vessel equipped for such purpose called a ‘Dredger’’. Such dug up materials depending on the type could be used for reclamation of swampy terrain, building and construction works.
Sharps sand and gravel can be excavated using a dredger to reclaim vast expanse of swampy land and stock piled for sales. Sand dredging is vital for human habit and survival, industrial and social development, and for meeting the consumption need of our rapidly growing population.
Sand is a naturally occurring granular material composed of finely divided rock and mineral particles. The composition of sand is highly variable, depending on the local rock sources and conditions, but the most common constituent of sand in inland continental settings and non-tropical coastal settings is silica (silicon dioxide, or SiO2), usually in the form of quartz.
In times past, sand was considered a substance of low value, high volume and of little or no commercial impact. The increased demand in sand occasioned by physical construction has changed the story. It can now be said and rightly too that the tiny grains of sand have built our megacities and as sand has become increasingly valuable, hence commercial sand dredging has expanded rapidly on a global scale.
Due to the rich economic potentials in the dredging of sand, the venture has become a toast of many business men. Across the communities especially in Akwa Ibom State, machines are mounted indiscriminately to draw up sand from the earth.
No matter where it occurs, sand dredging has a tremendous impact on the environment. It causes flooding, leads to biodiversity and land loss, damages infrastructure like bridges and embankments, pollutes rivers and groundwater, and destroys beaches. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with sand extraction and transport take a significant toll as well. Not everyone appreciates the fact that sand comes from rocks that take thousands of years to erode into fine particles, and humans are using it faster than they should and taking them out from places they ought not to.
In a business environment naturally characterised by illegal activities and challenges in enforcing and monitoring regulations, sand dredging bears the risk of significant negative impacts on local communities and the environment especially in Akwa Ibom state. Some of the most outstanding issues include Environment and biodiversity. The process of sand dredging can involve mechanically dredging riverbeds or removing shorelines that have important buffer and nutrient functions in an ecosystem. Sand dredging has led to the use of extensive dredging which has resulted in the destruction of small river islands and has affected marine ecosystems. Other potential environmental impacts include exposing shorelines to greater risk of floods and erosion of riverside habitats.
It also has community-related impact. The destruction of aquatic habitats due to mechanised sand dredging can cripple the catchment areas of local fishermen, thus pushing them towards other activities including working in sand mining.Apart from the related physical hazards, transitioning to sand dredging activities can be economically unsustainable for locals as they may be forced to look for other work once local sand reserves are exhausted.
Agriculture is also significantly impacted by sand dredging. Mining along river beds increases the depths of rivers which can impact agricultural canal systems and disrupt agricultural water supply. Soil fertility, especially in river basins, is naturally maintained by mineral-rich silt carried by the rivers and artificial de-silting can potentially impact agricultural productivity.
Reports also indicate that workers involved in sand dredging face significant occupational hazards and health effects such as silicosis and cancer. In addition to exhausting manual labour, some workers, known as “divers,” are tasked with manually dredging creeks using only buckets and no diving equipment. The use of child labour is also reportedly common in the trade.
Environmental impacts of sand dredging, experts say, are disastrous. According to them, soil erosion, formation of sinkholes, loss of bio-diversity, soil contamination resulting from leakages of chemicals into the soil, deforestation, coastal erosion and loss of aquatic lives are possible effects of dredging and mining. For instance, dredging in some climes has been largely responsible for the near extinction of gharials (a species of crocodiles) and sea turtles, which depend on sandy beaches for their nesting.
In Akwa Ibom state, the demand for sands for both road and building construction has increased sand mining and dredging leading to a high demand for low-cost sand. Every undeveloped piece of land is made susceptible to mining while the coastal towns and river beds are being encroached upon considerably by dredgers.
Sadly, people involved in the business seem oblivious of the havoc they cause the environment and the beaches in Akwa Ibom state. It is a sad situation. Perhaps the most frightening effect of illegal sand mining in Akwa Ibom was captured by the State Commissioner for Works, Mr Ephraim Inyang-Eyen in a parley with journalists recently;
“I am giving a one-week grace for owners of barges to remove all the dredgers they brought to destroy our environment. As we sit today, we cannot build a bridge at Ekpene Ukpa, we cannot build a bridge at Mkpok; because the entire surface that should hold the bridge has been taken out. Now if you remove the clay, you remove the entire sand that is supposed to hold the column. When you put the column, it floats. Some of these things are damaging our environment. If those things are allowed to continue, our generations to come, our children will not have where to call their own”.
The above statement leaves one shuddering at the possibility that some bridges in Akwa Ibom could collapse under commuters’ weights – because they are being supported underneath by a fluid underwater soil structure destabilized by illegal mining activities. Some of the flood and other cruel environmental conditions are caused by sand dredging.
The good news is that the government of Akwa Ibom state under Mr Udom Emmanuel is poised to flush out the illegal sand dredgers who according to investigations are non indigenes of the state and some fronted by a few indigenes to mess up the environment. The government will stop at nothing to reclaim the environment.
*Finbarr is Special Assistant to the Governor (Media)