A one-and-a-half hour drive away from Karachi, Hub Dam is a popular picnic spot for residents of the city. It is where a major part of the city’s water supply comes from, the Hub River being its main supplier. When Jabeen, 34, took her children — 13-year-old Hifza, 10-year-old Hamza and Areeba, who was only four — for a day of relaxation there, she could not have imagined how it would turn out.
As she watched, her children waded into the Hub River to bathe in it. Suddenly, all three of them seemed to be pulled down into the water. As Jabeen ran to save her children, she too was caught unaware by a deep pit in the riverbed and was sucked into the dark waters. They all perished.
This is not the only tale of deaths that occur because of the deep pits dug by heavy machinery employed by the numerous sand mining sites on Hub River, which starts in south-eastern Balochistan and continues along the Sindh border. Anyone visiting the river can easily fall prey to these uncountable pits dug by excavators to mine sand for construction.
After every rain, water flowing into the river accumulates in interminably deep pits. Filled with water, the edges of such pits are steep and remain invisible until bathers finds themselves sliding into the deep water rapidly and with no chance of coming back up.
Unchecked sand mining in Hub River is an environmental catastrophe and a physical danger for human safety. It may also have exacerbated the devastating impacts of the recent floods
In 2020, three friends, Shahzad, Zubair and Sajad, met with a similar fate when they went bathing in the Hub River where they had come for a picnic. Their whoops of joy turned into cries of help and panic when all of them were pulled down abruptly into a watery abyss.
Such cases of drowning in the Hub River are frequent but often go unreported.
The recent spell of monsoon rains has caused flash flooding in Hub River, washing away a large part of the main and only functional bridge across the river. Resultantly, the town of Hub was disconnected from Karachi. However, the local media holds the massive pitting by sand mining operations to be the reason behind the collapse of the bridge in late July.
Sand is the most consumed substance after water; it is also the single-most mined commodity. It is used in virtually every construction or manufacturing process. When one zooms in using Google Earth, a host of heavy machines, including excavators and dumpers, can be seen extracting sand from the riverbed of Hub River, on these images from June 2022.
Taking Band Murad, a barrage built in the river near the area called Band Murad, as a starting point, Eos has located 34 sand mining sites on Hub River, stretching over 34 kilometres, until the river’s ending point where it falls into the Arabian Sea.
All these sites have been carrying out unregulated and unchecked sand mining which has exacerbated environmental and hydrological (distribution and movement of water both on and below the Earth’s surface) impacts. Aside from posing a threat to human life, sand mining most affects infrastructure, the environment and water resources.
One can only grasp the dangers that lie in wait beneath the water by looking at similar cases of drowning in sand mining pits in neighbouring India, where rampant sand mining has already scarred its rivers. A report published by the rights group South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, records 193 deaths related to sand mining operations or on sand mining sites. Half of these people drowned in rivers because they were unaware of deep pits.
Unregulated and unchecked sand mining in Hub River
The Regional Mines and Minerals office at Hub has shut down the few crush or sand mining plants operating within the vicinity of a collapsed bridge on the Western Bypass. Muhammad Din Khan, deputy director of the Regional Mines and Mineral Department, says the mining close to what is now called the Western Bypass Bridge, had been taking place since 2004, when there was no blueprint for the construction of the bypass.
“The Western Bridge was built hardly eight months to a year ago. Mining of sand has been taking place for decades now,” he says. “It may be one of the causes [for the collapse] but there are many questions regarding the construction and durability of the newly-built bridge, and the repairing and maintenance of the main bridge which has now collapsed.”
According to him, the mines and minerals department only deals with the issuance of leases for land, their renewal and sorts out land disputes between parties, whereas the regulation and checking of ‘hazards’ falls in the domain of departments such as the Balochistan Environmental Protection Agency (Bepa) and the Inspectorate of Mines and Minerals Department.
It is also an uphill task to acquire data regarding sand mining. Muhammad Din Khan says, “I think there is no one [department] that has data regarding sand mining to share.”
One of the crush plant owners dithers when asked to share information about his nature of work. He flatly refuses to give even a shred of information. “I can’t tell you my name nor can I disclose any information that you are seeking at the moment. Telling you might lead to the closure of my site,” he says with fear. “If we were not operating as per guidelines and without acquiring a no-objection certificate [NOC], how could we operate?”
To give his work a protective cover, he says the police are always visiting the site and would have stopped operations, had his plant been operating illegally. Yet, he fails to show the NOC to Eos.
Instead, he shares an anecdote about his grandfather. “Sand mining which we are carrying out is indispensable,” he claims grandiosely. “We, the sand miners, are the ones who have provided the river its way. My grandfather once shared that, if we had not mined sand from the river, its water would have flooded the entire city, as it happened in 1975.”
Laws enacted to control environmental impacts
The Sindh Prohibition of Taking Minerals Including Reti (Sand) and Bajri From Any Land Act prohibits extraction of sand and regulates the process broadly to mitigate the adverse impacts emerging from excessive sand mining. The Balochistan government, on the other hand, lacks laws which could directly regulate or check the excessive sand mining in areas highly sensitive in terms of environmental and ecological preservation. However, section 20 and 23 of the Balochistan Environment Protection Act 2012 deal with water sustainability and coastal degradation respectively, both affected by the current excessive sand mining in Hub River.
Professor David R. Montgomery, geomorphologist and author of Dirt, The Erosion of Civilisations, writes that sand mining from riverbeds can lead to enhanced incision, leading to river down-cutting. “Sand mining in excess of the sediment supply can lead to river incision, which can destabilise banks and cause erosion both laterally and ... upstream. It can also disturb aquatic ecosystems,” he adds.
Nadeem Mirbahar, an expert working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Commission on Ecosystem Management, has been looking into excessive sand mining in Pakistan’s riverbeds and evaluating its impacts. According to him, if it’s imperative to mine sand, it should only be extracted by applying scientific methods and approaches like following the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA) guidelines to understand the impacts and damages that may result in response to mining activity in a riverbed.
Highlighting the gravity of sand mining carried out by 34 sand mining sites within a stretch of 34 km in Hub River, Nadeem says: “Sand mining on a large scale, especially from a small area, could be disastrous. Hydraulic pressure may change significantly, and change in gradient [displacement of sand] may lead to development of undesired conditions inside the river.”
River dams and unchecked sand mining: a lethal combo
Hub Dam was built in the 1980s and is a vital source of providing residents of both Hub and Karachi with drinkable water. However, there is another aspect of the dam constructed on the river. Being a vital source of freshwater, the excessive sand mining downstream of the river can exacerbate environmental and hydrological effects. The dam impedes the flow of sediments downstream and, when excessive sand mining is carried out, replenishment of sediments is slowed down.
To quote Montgomery further: “The sand in rivers and on beaches comes from erosion of upland areas, and it can be viewed as material in transit from mountains to the sea. Sand mining can deplete supplies and limit the amount available, and the construction of dams on rivers can impede the downstream replenishment of sand. One credible estimate is that the supply of sand delivered to the world’s estuaries and oceans has been cut in half by dams emplaced along river systems. So if we mine the sand downstream and we cut off the re-supply upstream it can substantially reduce the amount available for use both by us and by the river (to build its bed). So while we won’t completely run out of sand, we are on track to run out of enough.”
Dr Imran Khalid, an environment expert, believes that the dams constructed on a river trap 30 to 40 percent of topsoil, the sediment flowing downstream. “With a dam on a river and unchecked and excessive sand mining downstream, this leads the river to run out of topsoil. This impacts the population living near the river. The agriculture of the area gets badly disturbed as the level of water in the areas goes down,” he says.
“Gradually, the pits emptied are taken over by saline water of the sea, underground. This is the reason most of the areas near coasts or rivers have saline water underground, leading to scarcity of freshwater for use,” stresses Dr Khalid.
Researchers have delved into the issue of sand mining in terms of having impacts on the physical environment, i.e. changes in the course of the river. The current flooding in Hub River depicted a similar view. Because of the erosion of the riverbank, as excavation has continuously been expanding horizontally, the river has widened.
Environmental activist Afia Salam also explains that when the extraction of sand outpaces the sediment replenishment, underground aquifers don’t go through the absorption process, given the speedy flow of the water because of the removal of the sand.
Apart from the impact of unregulated sand mining on the environment and water resources, researchers also highlight its effects on the fauna and flora. “Many freshwater grass species, gastropod and shell species are also being removed from wet riverbeds during the sand mining process,” Mirbahar points out. “These life forms are vital for a river, the health of an ecosystem and species like freshwater turtles, crocodiles and river dolphins and other amphibians like toads, frogs and monitor lizards etc. These species keep water in good health and remove residues of dead or organic materials and nutrients in excess.”
Out of the nine important ecological zones of Pakistan, six are located in Balochistan. However, the slack attitude of the Bepa and mines and minerals agencies has left the zones vulnerable.
“After a struggle of many years and continuous requests, the department has approved the regional office at Hub. The office has been functional for just two months now, despite the fact that the district holds much importance in terms of resource enrichment,” regrets Muhammad Din Khan.
The writer is a freelance journalist covering climate change across Pakistan.
He tweets at @Ayaz_Jurno
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 11th, 2022