Intensified development in Sri Lanka has increased the demand for river sand which is a raw building material. The laws and regulations of the country on river sand mining are governed by the Mines and Minerals Act No. 33 of 1992 as amended in 2009 and the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) and relevant Divisional Secretariats are the authorized government bodies to issue permits/licenses to persons involved in such activities. Excessive sand mining is a common practice along the Maha Oya which in turn is increasing the vulnerability and the nature of the river, affecting adjoining groundwater systems and also impacts the uses that local people make of the river.
EFL was invited by the Geological Survey & Mines Bureau (GSMB) and the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) to conduct a joint site inspection on the 4th of May, 2017 to evaluate sand mining activities in Katana. EFL’s participation, as requested by the GSMB, was to assess the current status of mining/mined pits, and provide recommendations based on present conditions which in turn can be utilized in the process of issuing mining permits and also the renewal of existing permits in the future.
A consistent observation at almost every site visited was that sand mining pits have merged or lie very close to the Maha Oya, a clear violation of current regulations which clearly clarifies the minimum reservation from either sides of the Maha Oya bank to pits falling within the local limits of Katana. Community members were vocal about decreasing water levels, a result of the thriving sand mining business in Katana.
Common impacts of excessive in-stream sand mining includes the degradation of rivers and the lowering of the stream bottom which may lead to bank erosion, depletion of sand in the stream bed deepening and enlarging the river. It can also lead to saline-water intrusion from the nearby sea and pose a threat to bridges, river banks and nearby structures as the river is no longer stable. From an ecological point of view, sand mining can also have a significant impact on riverbed species and riparian vegetation and wildlife that are dependent on the river.
It was evident that zero river restoration activities had been thought out. More shockingly, permits have been previously renewed disregarding such environmental impacts and related regulations.