Guangdong battles to stop excessive sand mining

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am

When a sand barge smashed into the Jiujiang Bridge on the Xi River last month, the collision not only killed nine people and brought down part of the bridge, it also halted Qingyuan businessman Xin Ge's sand-mining operation 200km away on the Bei River.

In the fallout following the disaster in Foshan , Guangdong water conservancy authorities earlier this month ordered many sand miners to shut indefinitely. It is a decision that has cost Mr Xin, who is not using his real name, and his partners several million yuan and up to 70 per cent of their two-year-old business.

'The officials stepped up control of river sand mining after the collapse, saying excessive dredging may threaten bridge safety,' Mr Xin said.

Sand mining has boomed in the Pearl River Delta over the past two decades, thanks to a lack of official oversight and the huge building demand, and the collapse of a 200-metre section of the Jiujiang bridge highlights the real dangers this exploitation creates.

Mr Xin said the Xi and Dong rivers had been mined for years and had almost been depleted. 'The riverbeds are at least 20 to 30 metres deeper than they were 20 years ago.'

The Guangdong Water Conservancy Department said illegal dredging was prevalent in the Boluo section of the Dong River, the Zhaoqing section of the Xi River, and the Shantou and Chaozhou parts of the Han.

It estimates that about 14 million cubic metres of sand are deposited each year in Guangdong's rivers, but annual demand is about 90 million cubic metres, forcing deeper deposits to meet the shortfall.

In the case of the Jiujiang Bridge, the river bed near the collision was up to 50 metres deep at the time of the collapse, more than twice the 20-metre depth in 1985 a few years before it was built, official sources said.

Fisherman Huang Shusheng , whose boats moor 1km from the collapsed section, said 'the boats came to dredge the sand almost under the bridge illegally every night'.

A senior transport official insisted the collapse was not related to the sand-dredging. But Shan Chenglin , a bridge expert from the South China University of Technology, said the excavations 'would definitely lower the stability of the bridge when it is hit'.

Professor Shan said excessive dredging was so widespread on the delta that it had undermined the stability of bridges in Zengcheng and Huizhou , leading to their collapse during floods.

Water conservancy department spokeswoman Yang Minyi said the dredging had threatened the safety of shipping, flood prevention and water supply, and that part of the problem was the failure of authorities to ensure dredgers stick by the rules.

'We have banned dredging in many channels for the past five or six years, but the biggest problem is how to monitor the ban,' Ms Yang said.

She said local water conservancy authorities used to have the power to issue sand-mining contracts and reap the tax proceeds. Under those conditions, the highest bidder won.

'So they just sold the mining rights to the businessman who offered the highest price and did not monitor their operations at all,' she said. 'Now we are asking local bureaus to hand in all bid earnings to the province in the future and then we will reallocate [part of the earnings] for their normal expenditure.'

Mr Xin predicted the new approach will push the sand price up to 50 yuan per cubic metre, but could go some way to reducing the excessive dredging.

He and his partners have witnessed the local government's drive to squeeze as much money as possible out of the tender process.

Last summer, the businessmen offered 6.1 million yuan to the Qingyuan water conservation bureau to mine a 4.5km stretch of the Bei River. The bid was 100,000 yuan above the floor price, but the bureau refused it and reopened bidding a month later. They had to pay 17.5 million yuan to secure the same rights.

They were allowed to dredge 600,000 cubic meters from the section in a year, but costs forced their eight boats - three of them unlicensed - to dredge day and night to lift production to millions of cubic metres a year. Mr Xin said the bureau must have known about the illegal extractions, but it never interfered.

'The government already earned most of the money so it did not care what we were doing,' he said.

He said no one knows exactly how much sand had been dredged from the delta's rivers every year. 'We have lots of good policies, but local officials do not follow them. Who can really supervise the local authorities?'