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Sand Mining: Irreversible damage to Ocean benthic life

GS Paper 3

 Syllabus: Environment Conservation

Source: DTE

 Context: Approximately six billion tonnes of sand are extracted annually from the world’s oceans, causing irreversible damage to benthic life, according to a new global data platform called Marine Sand Watch.


What is Benthic Life?

Benthic life refers to organisms that live on or near the bottom of aquatic environments, such as oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. These organisms are adapted to life on the seabed or riverbed and play crucial roles in the ecosystem, including decomposing organic matter and providing food for other aquatic species.


Impact of Sand Extraction on Benthic Life:

Impact Description
Disruption of Habitat Sand extraction disturbs the seabed, destroying the habitat and shelter of benthic organisms such as worms, crustaceans, and small fish.
Sediment Resuspension Dredging activities stir up sediment, increasing water turbidity. This reduces light penetration, affecting photosynthetic organisms and altering the benthic environment.
Altered Nutrient Dynamics Changes in sediment composition and nutrient availability can disrupt the food web and nutrient cycling, affecting benthic communities’ survival and reproduction.
Noise Pollution The machinery and vessels used in sand extraction generate underwater noise, which can disturb and stress benthic organisms, impacting their behaviour and health.
Smothering of Organisms Depositing dredged sand can smother benthic life and the creatures living within the seabed, preventing them from accessing food and oxygen.
Migration and Displacement Benthic organisms may need to migrate or are forcibly displaced due to sand extraction, disrupting their natural life cycles and behaviours.
Reduced Food Availability Altered sediment composition can reduce the availability of food sources for benthic organisms, leading to reduced populations and potential extinctions.
Increased Mortality Sand extraction can directly harm benthic life through physical disturbance and sediment burial, leading to increased mortality rates.


Examples of the impact of Coastal Sand Mining on Indian Coasts:

Impacts Description
Periyasamypuram, Tamil Nadu Reduced fish catch – Dried palm trees – Brackish groundwater – Sea intrusion into the village
Kerala (Kollam, Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta, Kottayam, Ernakulam) Seawater intrusion – Coastal land inundation – Groundwater salinization due to sand mining
Loss of Turtle Nesting Sites Sand mining disrupts turtle nesting habitats, leading to the loss of nesting sites for turtles like Olive Ridley sea turtles.
Karnataka Rampant sand mining causing coastal erosion – Government expenditure on erosion control measures
Coastal Ecosystem Impact Serious repercussions on the coastal ecosystem – Alarming environmental consequences
Legal Actions The National Green Tribunal imposes a fine of Rs 100 crore on the Andhra Pradesh government for failing to prevent illegal sand mining in the state.


Preventive measures taken:

Some countries — including Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia — have banned marine sand export in the last 20 years, while others lack any legislation and /or effective monitoring programmes.


Addressing these issues requires a comprehensive approach, including:

  • Reducing Sand Consumption: Promoting sand-efficient construction practices.
  • Taxation and Regulation: Implementing taxes and regulations on sand extraction.
  • Alternative Materials: Exploring alternatives to sand in construction, such as recycling concrete or using filler materials like construction waste.
  • Community Empowerment: Involving local communities in decision-making, particularly those downstream or reliant on sand resources.
  • Integrated Regional Management: Coordinating sand resource management between offshore regulators, coastal communities, and upstream river basins.


Legal Mechanisms:

  • Sand is categorized as a “minor mineral” under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulations) Act, 1957, and its control lies with the State Governments. The primary sources of sand are rivers and coastal areas, and its demand has surged due to India’s construction and infrastructure development activities.
  • The Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change has issued “Sustainable Sand Mining Management Guidelines 2016” to promote environmentally friendly sand mining practices.
  • The International Seabed Authority (ISA), governed by a UN treaty, regulates mineral exploration and extraction. India, as a party to the treaty, has exclusive rights to explore polymetallic nodules in the Central Indian Ocean Basin spanning over 75,000 sq. km.


About Marine Sand Watch

It is a global data platform developed by GRID-Geneva, part of the UN Environment Programme. It monitors and tracks sediment extraction activities in the world’s marine environments, including sand, clay, silt, gravel, and rock dredging. It uses Automatic Identification System signals from vessels and Artificial Intelligence to identify dredging operations.


Mains Links

Coastal sand mining, whether legal or illegal, poses one of the biggest threats to our environment. Analyse the impact of sand mining along the Indian coasts, citing specific examples. (UPSC 2019)


Prelims Links:

Consider the following minerals: (UPSC 2020)

  1. Bentonite
  2. Chromite
  3. Kyanite
  4. Sillimanite


In India, which of the above is/are officially designated as major minerals?

(a) 1 and 2 only
(b) 4 only
(c) 1 and 3 only
(d) 2, 3 and 4 only



Ans: (d)