Hiding their head in the sandIllegal sand mining on Chure rivers displaces farmers, decimates a fragile landscape
Kantidevi Malar, 40, looks out across her small farm where the top soil has been replaced by sand and boulders brought down by monsoon floods six months ago. The parts where she could plant are still water-logged.
Her husband’s family has been farming this small plot for generations, growing paddy, vegetables and wheat and sharing half the adhiya harvest with the landlord.
“What do I do now,” she says simply, gesturing at the devastation.
Ramchandra Mahato, 45, is a native of this part of Nepal in the plains bordering India, and faces a similar predicament. The floods covered his land under 3m of water, destroyed the standing crops and damaged his house.
Malar and Mahato are just two of the thousands of farming households who have been affected by the raging Ratu River in Mahottari district. The Ratu is not a river flowing down from Himalayan glaciers, nor was the flood this year and in past years caused by any extreme weather event.
The seasonal river that starts in the Chure Range has been mined for sand and boulders by contractors, so there is nothing to check the velocity of the water during the monsoon which overflows its banks and races across farmlands.
In a nearby village, 44-year-old Ganesh Sah also lost his newly-planted paddy. He planted it again, only for it to be washed away again and again.
“After the third replanting I ran out of seeds, and had to stop,” he tells us, sitting on the roadside with his chin in his palms to survey his field. “I will stop farming. It is just not worth it anymore.”
These fertile farms of the Tarai plains used to be Nepal’s grain basket. The surplus crops fed the country, and the farmers prospered. Even if monsoon floods came down the rivers, it replenished the soil with nutrients and made them even more fertile the next year.
But it was when new road embankments in Nepal and India started impounding monsoon runoff and quarrying in the Chure raised the sedimentation load of rivers and changed their hydrology, that the rivers started rampaging through the floodplains.
“Until as recently as ten years ago, we had three crops a year. Wheat, paddy and maize, and we had a good market price for them,” says Thakani Devi, 69. “But we have had no harvest for the past few years.”
Her husband Deeplal Chaudhari looks worried as he relates how it is a struggle to pay off the loan he took to buy seeds for this year’s crop, as well as take care of his 17-member extended family. The only way they have managed to survive is from the remittances sent home by one of their sons who went to Malaysia to work.
The crisis is driving thousands of households across the Madhes Province off farming for good. The younger generation does not want to farm anyway, and now the ecological crisis of the Chure rivers is destroying agriculture.
Besides destroying crops, the raging rivers can also turn deadly as it happened in 2018. Bhabichhan Sah, 42, says, “Last year’s monsoon wiped out our standing rice crop. The next monsoon on the Ratu will probably wash us all away.”
After losing two sets of paddy he planted last monsoon due to floods, 35-year-old Sanjay Sah Sonar has decided to abandon farming altogether. Ironically, he is looking for a job in the sand mining quarry that is the cause of the floods that devastated his farm. If he does not find work there, he might join the millions of Nepalis who migrate abroad for employment.
“It just does not make sense to farm anymore,” he states matter-of-factly.
Tracing the origin
After observing the devastation downstream, we travelled up the Ratu to trace the river’s origins. We traced the source of the flood to a sand mining business (called ‘crusher’) in Bardibas Municipality along the East West Highway, at the foothills of the Chure Range.
We deployed a drone to give us a bird’s eye view of how the crusher company was mining the river bed for sand, boulders, pebbles and turning them into raw material to feed the voracious appetite of the construction industry in Nepal and India.
Besides mining the river bed, the real estate mafia is also involved in channeling the rivers so that the government land along the floodplains can be parcelled out to be sold either to developers, or to rent it to the sand mining companies.
Since farming does not make sense anymore, villagers are selling the sand that covers their fields to the sand mining companies. Pure sand fetches Rs100 per tractor, while impure sand mixed with soil can be sold for Rs50.
Bijaya Singh is doing his PhD on the Chure quarries and how these operations affect downstream river flows and farms. He says the rivers are narrowed by the embankments, and the sediment load on the rivers have increased because of the sand mining, raising the riverbed further south.
“While the mining is destructive, what has compounded the risk is that the rivers have been narrowed by artificially channeling them, it has lost the floodplain which would have reduced the damage during the monsoon,” Singh explains.
His research published by the Central Geology Department of Tribhuvan University cites the channelling of the Ratu’s many rivulets into one main flow to make it easier to mine sand as another reason for the floods which flowed through the nearby town and destroyed croplands on the banks.
A satellite image from 2015 shows the Ratu River spreading across a wide floodplain with many rivulets. In fact, images from 2013 show that the Ratu used to flow separately towards Kisannagar and Begdawar of Dhanusha district. But this distributary has been blocked with sand barriers, and the crusher company is extracting sand and boulders from the former river bed.
The Social and Economic Impact Assessment Study Report on Chure Destruction eight years ago concluded that it was the sand and boulder extraction in the Charnath Watershed of Dhanusha that caused the devastating flood that year. Similarly, the Chure-Tarai Protection and Management Masterplan of 2018 blames floods and crop destruction directly on sand mining and extraction activities along river beds and the Chure quarries. It says none of these industries had done any environment risk assessment for soil erosion, landslide, or floods downstream.
“The main reason for the destruction of infrastructure and crops downstream is due to unregulated over-extraction of riverine material,” says Uttam Babu Shrestha of the Global Institute For Interdisciplinary Study in Lalitpur. “This has not just unleashed disasters, but it has also affected the biodiversity of the entire Chure-Tarai belt.”
The Chure Watershed
The Chure is the youngest and southernmost fold of the Himalayan mountains. It is composed mostly of uplifted top soil and boulders and does not have bedrock beneath. This makes the low-lying range fragile especially during extreme weather events. A cloudburst can easily dissolve an entire Chure ridge in a matter of hours if it has been stripped of vegetation, or if there is indiscriminate quarrying going on.
Unregulated sand and boulder mining by contractors in the past decades has ravaged the Chure. The soil, sand and stones are transported down to the plains by monsoon floods, and these overflow into farmlands, and raise the level of the floodplain.
“Destroying the forests in the Chure for quarrying also disturbs the natural recharging of groundwater on which the plains to the south depend to replenish wells,” explains Bijaya Singh. “And after boulders and stones are extracted from rivers, the floods become more destructive because there is nothing to break their flow.”
Associate Professor Kumudraj Kafle of Kathmandu University’s Department of Environment and Engineering says that with the Chure denuded of forests, the rivers now have such high sediment loads that the sand is deposited downstream, exacerbating flood risks as it is easier for rivers to overflow their banks.
“The sand downstream is not considered of good quality for construction, so there is not much extraction,” Kafle says, “the mining is happening more in the northern area where pure sand that is in high demand in India is plentiful.”
The sand and boulder extraction to feed the export market for construction material to India is ultimately affecting the farmlands and town across the border in India itself. At Jaleswar on the Indian border, the level of the river has been rising by up to 40cm every year, so there is talk of raising the embankments to prevent future floods.
The Chair of Jaleswar Community Development and Advocacy Platform says the whole town is now at high risk of floods and this risk is also present downstream across the border in India. Future floods can be catastrophic as the climate crisis unleashes extreme weather events like monsoon cloudbursts that dump up to 300mm of rain in 24 hours on the Chure.
The community-based flood information system installed by ICIMOD at the Ratu River bridge near Bardibas shows that even when the water level rises by only 1m, downstream areas are flooded because of raised river beds.
Where are the Extractors?
According to the images taken from satellite and drone in the river bank of Ratu River from Bardibas to Bhangaha Municipality, there is sand mining and processing crushers in operation at 38 sites. Ground level inspections showed that there are two excavators digging up sand along a 400m stretch.
In Jaleswar, a bridge that was destroyed in the previous flood has been rebuilt but even the new bridge is at risk of being washed away in a future flood due to sand mining.
A satellite image taken in February 2018 shows only two small sand excavation pits along the floodplain of the Ratu River. A photo taken only a year later shows that these pits had widened to up to 60m in diameter. The ensuing flood has destroyed embankments in Banchauri constructed to protect 1,600 households in Balawa Municipality.
Double click on the map to view the extraction around the Chure Conservation Area. A dot represents the upper or lower point specified for excavation. Mapping: ARUN KARKI
Still, the extraction is continuing with excavators 50m south of the Balawa-Janakpur road, endangering the bridge. A levee made 200m upstream to protect the bridge was destroyed in last year’s flood.
Theoretically, the upcoming local elections would help bring greater accountability in municipal governments and clean up the corruption that drives the crusher contractors. However, locals say that the elections have actually focused the minds of local leaders on raising money for their campaigns, and this means there will be more destructive quarrying – making the next monsoon even more destructive.
“We need an embankment built right away to prepare for this year’s flood, but the Chief District Officer and local government are asleep,” says farmer Bhabichhan Sah. “We are trapped.”
Indeed, local farmers here are collateral damage in the collusion between local governments and contractors who fund and protect each other.
Further east in Mahottari district, contractors have dug a 35 metre pit to extract sand from the river. Nearby, an excavator was loading the sand into three tipper trucks waiting to haul them away.
Double click on the map to view excavation and processing sites. Mapping: ARUN KARKI
Near the bridge in Dhamaura of Balawa town, there are 30 to 50m long pits along the riverbeds for extracting sand and boulders. Satellite images of that bridge show scars from last year’s floods upstream and downstream from it. The extraction has now put the nearby town of Rauja Bazar at high risk.
In Kisannagar area of Bardibas, we saw excavators busily lifting sand into tipper trucks, putting the Nandalal Engineering Campus and the town of Kisannagar itself 500m downstream at high risk.
Bardibas Municipality has not granted any permits for sand and boulder extraction from its rivers this fiscal year. But the Municipality’s own records show that there are 25 crusher industries running in Ratu River area.
Mishrilal Yadav of the municipality’s Revenue Department says that crushers need licenses to extract raw materials from rivers. These crusher industries need to be duly registered in the Office of the Company Registrar or in the Cottage and Small Scale Industries Office under the Department of Industry. None of this has been done.
The quarry owners appear to be using a loophole about mining and sand processing to continue their illegal extraction without permits. After filing an application under the Right to Information Act, we received details from Bardibas Municipality and Cottage and Small Scale Industries Office that there are indeed 66 crusher and sand processing industries in operation in Mahottari district alone.
Chief of Cottage and Small Scale Office, Mahottari Krishna Kumar Mishra made the startling admission that there is no provision for punishment against the industries if they have not renewed their registration.
“That is why the federal government had to make a rule regarding what punishment to be levied on those not renewing,” he told, “but that did not happen.” So, the municipal and provincial tax offices are collecting revenue from industries that are essentially illegal.
Rules governing extraction of sand and boulders from rivers say local governments must give the permission. Those crushers working in the Chure need further permission from the Chure-Tarai Madhes Protection Development Committee. We collected records of 116 companies that had no such permit.
The Data Journalism Center Nepal (CDJN) collected information from 137 local governments within the Chure Protection Area in the past year that showed permission had been given to 21 local units at 164 river sites to extract 4.26 million cubic meters of sand.
These were more permits than the year before when 45 rivers and 93 river banks were allowed to be mined for Rs2.2 million cubic meters of sand. The impact of such rampant extraction has damaged highway bridges, as well as downstream settlements, farmlands and infrastructure, the Committee said.
As per guidelines, rivers cannot be mined within two km of towns and forests, and should be at least 500m away from highways, roads and suspension bridges. The Committee has halted river extraction in Arghakhanchi, Nawalparasi, and Rupendehi in the western Tarai, but no such action has been taken in Madhes Province.
The Chure Terai Madhesh Protection and Management Masterplan warned of serious danger to irrigation canals, highways, new railway lines, drinking water supply and hydropower projects due to extraction along rivers.
Yet, the masterplan remains just a plan. The exploitation and extraction of natural resources is expected to accelerate in an election year.
(This report has been prepared under the Environmental Crime Series of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, The Henry Jumalo Foundation and Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism.)