A nation built on sand

All photos: GOPEN RAI.

As dusk falls hundreds of tipper trucks carrying sand, gravel and boulders travel together like a serpentine cargo train past Thankot, Sanga, Sankhu, and Chapagaun, the cardinal entry points to the Valley. They rumble on throughout the night, and as dawn breaks the trucks head back out empty.

Their cargo of gravel and sand are mined from the beds of rivers like the Trisuli, Indrawati, Rosi, or Sun Kosi. And when these rivers are  stripped clean, the extraction simply moves to other rivers further away.

The appropriately named ‘crusher’ industry is crushing Nepal’s natural environment with irreversible damage, scarring mountains and killing rivers.

Indeed, as Nepal’s wealthiest businessmen and politicians, contractors, and middlemen collude to reap rewards from sand mining and quarries, local communities are left to deal with floods, landslides, dust and smoke on their own.

“Although the scale of exploitation might not be large in Nepal, the effect to the environment and to Nepalis will be tenfold worse than elsewhere because of the fragile nature of the Himalaya,” explains Ramesh Bhushal, an environmental journalist with The Third Pole portal.

More than half of Nepal’s population now lives in the Tarai, which spans only one-fifth of the country’s area. Much of this population depends on the Chure Range watershed which has fragile geological structure with thin vegetation protecting the top soil.

But with rampant sand mining, quarrying and encroachment of forests, this ecosystem is being destroyed.

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One of the most desecrated rivers that flows down from the Chure to the eastern plains is Mahottari's Ratu River. During the monsoon, there are large ponds where sand has been excavated, and without the sediment  there is nothing to slow the velocity of the river, causing it to erode the banks, destroy crops, damage infrastructure, and endanger lives downstream.

In the mountains, the Sun Kosi, Indrawati, and Trisuli now have nearly barren river beds with most of the boulders and sand gone. In Lele in South Lalitpur, an entire mountainside has been gouged out, leaving a gaping wound that is visible on Google satellite images. The quarry has disturbed ground water recharge, and the Lele river is coffee-coloured as it flows north into Kathmandu Valley.

The local municipality has made shady deals with the contractor, prompting an investigation by the Commission of the Abuse of Authority Investigation which wrote to the Ministry of Federal Affairs to stop the Lele quarry immediately, but the owners have powerful political backing and the quarry is actually expanding.

As it is, the government has little financial benefit from the mining of natural resources. Recent data from the Comptroller General's Office shows that 96 rural municipalities earned a little over Rs1 billion from contractors extracting sand and gravel.

Juddha Gurung, and environmentalist and member of the National Natural Resources and Fiscal Commission, estimates that local governments across Nepal earn only Rs6 billion annually from contractors — a mere 2.6% of the estimated annual turnover of Rs2 trillion.

Nepal produced 13.5 million metric tonnes of cement in the 2019/20, for which it needed 90 million tonnes of sand and gravel that year.  Nepal’s self-sufficiency in cement production has meant that mining industries extract 13 million tonnes of limestone — for which the government collected royalty worth Rs790 million during the last fiscal year.

Low mining costs and a market price of Rs25,000 per truck for river materials means a turnover of more than Rs2.5 billion for contractors who pay little to no taxes, and are not held liable for the environmental damage and disasters.

Companies are now investing intensively in hydropower projects. Nepal currently produces 2,200MW of power, and is set to add another 3,000MW from projects under construction, with considerable damage to the ecology of rivers.

Although there are policies in place to ensure that hydropower construction does not significantly obstruct river flow, there is no effective mechanism to check whether existing protocols and provisions are being followed.

A study conducted by environmentalist Batukrishna Upreti in the Modi River basin in Kaski in 2019 found that none of the four hydropower projects on that river followed environmental impact guidelines.

The Arun 3 project being built by the Indian company Sutlej Power was supposed to obtain clearance from the Makalu Barun National Park and District Forest Office to excavate stone, gravel and sand. The company has neither taken permission, nor paid any royalty for extracting the material from the river.

Nepal may have increased forest cover to 45% of its area, but government-owned woods have often been felled by private interests. Chandra Dhakal’s IME Group pays only Rs254 per tree annually to the government in exchange for using 88 acres of government-owned forest for Chandragiri Hills resort and cable car.

For 80 years, the Fungling Municipality of Taplejung had given permission to the Yeti Group to use government land for the operation of the Pathibhara Darshan Cable Car without determining an annual revenue to the local government.

Not only do these industries operate in legal grey areas, but the people who control the industry also have a direct influence on decisions that affect environmental protection policies and regulations.

Licences of 700 ‘crusher’ industries across the country have lapsed since 2016 due to their failure to comply with environmental protection rules. More than 1,000 other aggregate suppliers have not met the criteria.

Still, that has not stopped them from continuing to operate because of protection from political patronage. Part of the problem is that the Local Government Operation Act 2017 gives municipalities the right to make decisions about the mining and extraction of river resources.

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More than 70 locally elected leaders in 2017 were contractors. Well known political figures in the country have investments in companies involved in natural resource extraction.  Environmentalist Gurung says, "Local representatives are colluding to give mining rights to businessmen at an undervalued rate.”

On the other hand, major ongoing development projects mean that legal exemptions are in place to allow for the operation of plants to process construction materials. This has led to industries procuring more materials than required for development projects to make profits on the side with impunity.

The 2020 guidelines for stone, gravel, sand extraction sales stipulated that apart from approval from local governments, they also needed the consent of the President Chure-Tarai Conservation Development Board.  But many of the 137 municipalities circumvented the Board to allow contractors to operate within the protected zone.

The Cabinet in May amended guidelines, legitimising ‘crusher’ industries that violated standards and operated near highways, forest areas, dense settlements, and transmission lines. In late June, the Supreme Court blocked the amendment, but this has not stopped them from continuing to operate illegally.

In May 2018, the court ordered the closure of ‘crusher’ industries in the  Tadi and Trisuli rivers in Nuwakot, but the District Administration Office was not able to enforce the decision after local elected officials defied the order.

Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) are mandatory before excavation of rivers and mountains. However, Sanjay Nath Khanal a professor of environmental science at  Pokhara University says the rules are a formality and are routinely flouted.

Nepal’s Supreme Court 2010 decreed that no one should own natural resources and that the government is merely the custodian of nature. The court stipulated that natural resources must be used for the public good, and the collective benefit of all Nepalis.

In 2018, Secretaries of the Ministry of Federal Affairs, Ministry of Finance and the National Natural Resources and Fiscal Commission blamed the government for exploiting river products and recommended regulation of the activity of contractors.

Professor Sanjay Nath Khanal proposes a ‘people's partnership model’ that can be adopted in the use of other natural resources like community forests.

He adds, “A model that ensures participation of local residents with contractors for systematic use and conservation of resources would not only help protect the environment, but also in the distribution of benefits to local communities.”