Monsoon flows against a sand-deprived riverbank has caused it – and the prospects of farmers in the area – to collapse. Photo: Author provided.
The small village of Arosbagh is in trouble: it has little drinking water left for its people.
This is hardly an unusual story in water-starved India, but something is different here: the village lies beside the Terekhol river, which flows through the Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra. Indeed, the river takes a westward turn at Arosbagh and becomes the border between Maharashtra and Goa, flowing on to meet the sea about 25 km downstream from the village.
This is a relatively recent crisis. Until a few years ago, the community well in the village offered its residents copious quantities of fresh – and preciously sweet – water. Arosbagh had no land connection or bridge to the nearby town of Banda and would get marooned on occasion, thanks to the raging monsoon flows of the Terekhol. But the village had learnt to live with it and made a decent living, farming rice and coconut.
Sand miners from Goa and Maharashtra began their work unobtrusively in the early 2000s, gouging out sand from the river’s bed (called ‘instream mining’) in the dry season. There was easy money in the business, so their numbers, local political patronage and the volume of sand extracted grew exponentially every year. The river’s channel deepened steadily over the years – a common outcome of mining sand. Eventually, as a result of such incisions, the Terekhol’s water level plunged as did the level of water in the aquifers adjacent to the river, where groundwater is stored.
Water seeks its own level. With the drop in the aquifer, the wells dried up too. Today, the water level in the community well has dropped so low that users have installed submersible pumps 25 feet below the surface. In summer, the water shortage is intense.
Yet this is but one unfortunate and critical impact – instream mining doesn’t just deepen the channel. It erodes the riverbanks because the sand layer used to insulate the water’s effect on land, like a cushion. The paddies of Arosbagh are falling – large parcels of land toppling over in minutes – into a river inflated by monsoon rains every year, taking coconut trees, precious top soil and dozens of livelihoods along.
Every farmer my team spoke to had lost land in the monsoons, even as the river has increased in width. As a result, it has swallowed additional stretches of fertile land into the zone of future collapse. So farmers leave them uncultivated – for no farmer is willing to take a chance.
The village had its share of occupational fisherpeople but they have diversified into other professions since saline water from the sea intruded into the river. The river’s bed falling below that of the estuary also brought high-tide flushes. Native freshwater fish habitats and hatcheries are gone. Invasive jellyfish, which have little commercial value, are today the main catch. The river’s salinity renders the water useless for household use and for agriculture in the dry season, with dire implications for the area’s cropping patterns.
The water is gone. The land is gone. The people’s livelihoods are gone.
The village is now fighting back. A group of young people patrol the riverbank and sand miners are chased away, but they do return at night. Quarrels that devolve into physical confrontations are known to be dangerous.
Sand is not just a minor mineral, as the government has categorised it, to be extracted for the construction industry. It is the river’s soil – the substratum that sustains virtually all life in the river.
Along with gravel, it forms an intermediate zone between the river’s surface water and the groundwater below, called the hyporheic zone. This zone regulates crucial geological processes in the river, slows the water’s flow and controls percolation, downwards and laterally, far beyond the basin itself. Its condition is crucial to the needs of millions of people.
Remove the sand and the water runs when it should be walking, with little time to recharge the aquifer. In the last three decades, in hundreds of villages across India, the Arosbagh story has played out with few details changed: sand-mining depleted the aquifer, destroyed farming and compromised the river’s self-correcting mechanisms.
Sand also provides a breeding habitat to many species of fish that deposit eggs in sandbeds. This is why sand-mining across India has decimated inland fisheries, with many species on the brink of extinction and leaving lakhs of sustainable fishers without jobs. The vast majority of these people are poor and live on the economic fringes. Such losses are not part of the cost accounting for sand’s extraction – they simply form the collateral damage of a GDP-obsessed policy of mineral extraction for urbanisation.
Yet another ecosystem service that sand provides is filtration. Sand particles stop the flow of silt and organic wastes as water enters and moves through sand. Uniquely evolved macroinvertebrates then break down and consume the waste, in complex processes that have evolved over millennia. 1 But extracting the hyporheic layer inhibits this self-cleaning mechanism, and other restorative processes, even as they receive more and more waste from urban and agricultural areas.
An important paper published earlier this year reviewed the impact of riverine sand mining on freshwater ecosystems and found 109 types of effects, some serious enough to irreversibly damage ecosystems, decimate species and livelihoods, and others more mild yet still worrying – often the unintended second or third order consequences of mining, which we may overlook.
State governments have sought to open more areas up for sand mining, to provide raw materials for construction. However, they typically fail to understand the environmental significance of sand, the economic value of the ecosystem services it provides at no cost, and its centrality to India’s water and job security.
As we stand by the community well in Arosbagh, amidst a pall of gloom, one resident is still optimistic. “This well has never let us down,” he says. “Even though the water level is just a couple of feet from the bottom, there is always water. We can rely on this.” I am not so sanguine.
Gopakumar Menon is the executive director of the Nityata River Otter Conservancy. His team works on conservation issues in a couple of riverine ecosystems in Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Macroinvertebrates are invertebrates large enough to see without a microscope ↩