Published on 09 May 2024

Shifting Sands: Charting a Course for Sustainable Sand Harvesting in Southeast Asia

The construction boom across Southeast Asia, driven by burgeoning urban development and infrastructure projects, vividly highlights the dual impacts of progress. For instance, the rapid expansion of road networks, ports, and urban centers, while catalyzing economic growth, has also led to significant environmental and social displacement. These projects rely heavily on sand, a fundamental component of concrete and asphalt, extracted in vast quantities from local riverbeds. Annually, this global demand reaches approximately 50 billion tons, positioning sand as the world’s most consumed resource after water. In the Vietnamese Mekong Delta alone, 50 million cubic meters of sand are extracted annually.

The environmental impact of extracting sand from riverbeds is profound. In the Mekong River, extensive mining alters river dynamics and affects millions who rely on these waterways. The ecological damage—ranging from riverbank erosion to biodiversity loss—is paralleled by social upheavals, with communities facing land subsidence and increased flood risks that jeopardize food security and displace populations. The Vietnamese Mekong Delta, the largest delta in Southeast Asia and third largest in the world, has long been plagued by sand mining. The lucrative market for sand drives clandestine mining operations at night or in remote areas that evade regulation. Vietnam and other countries in the region struggle to balance the economic gains of sand mining with environmental and social responsibility.          

Addressing the sustainability of global sand resources is urgent. As sand mining intensifies, Vietnamese and other SE Asian governments should mandate companies adopt stricter environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. Laws requiring companies to use the Sustainable Sand Mining Harvesting framework could ensure that the sand mining industry does not undermine the ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. 

A Tool to Map River Sand and Movement 

Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has developed a prototype of the Sustainable Sand Harvesting (SSH) framework, which is a robust, scientifically-grounded tool designed to enable mining companies to manage sand mining with precision and environmental consciousness. The NTU team is using Mekong Delta data as the testbed and once the modeling tool is fully developed and validated with field surveys, we will expand it to rivers throughout SE Asia. This model is comprehensive, incorporating hydrodynamics, sediment transport, and morphological change modules to map sand reserves accurately and assess their sustainability for extraction. 

The process begins with hydrodynamic modeling, utilizing measurements of the river’s depth (called bathymetry) and flow data to simulate the dynamics of river flows. This step is crucial for understanding how water moves sediment along and within the riverbeds. Following this, the sediment transport model calculates how sand and other materials are carried by these water flows. The final step uses data from the first two steps to predict how sediment deposition and erosion will alter the riverbed over time, updating riverbed profiles based on net sediment transport rates.

This detailed modeling allows SSH to identify Sustainable Mining Zones within river systems—areas where sand extraction can occur without exceeding ecological tipping points. Sustainable Mining Zones are determined by analyzing sand reserve data, current mining activities, and their socio-environmental impacts. Each designated zone ensures the river’s health and the well-being of adjacent communities. The output of this framework is a dynamic sand reserve map, a tool for decision-makers to guide sustainable sand extraction practices.

Translating Sustainable Sand Harvesting ESG Standards into Action 

The integration of SSH into ESG standards represents a strategic pivot towards ethical and sustainable resource management. ESG frameworks traditionally guide businesses and governments in operating responsibly by emphasizing environmental protection, social equity, and sound governance. Incorporating SSH into these frameworks means embedding a set of scientifically validated practices and criteria into the policies that govern natural resource extraction, particularly sand mining.

To operationalize SSH within ESG policies, governments and corporations must first recognize sand as a critical, yet finite resource requiring meticulous management to avoid ecological and social repercussions. This recognition should be translated into regulatory mandates that require sand mining operations to adhere strictly to SSH guidelines. 

For example, an ESG policy enhanced by SSH might mandate that companies seeking to mine sand must first conduct an SSH assessment to determine sustainable extraction zones. These zones would be clearly mapped and made public to ensure transparency. Companies would then be required to monitor these zones continuously using the methodologies prescribed by SSH, such as satellite imagery and hydrodynamic data analysis, to ensure compliance with environmental thresholds. Furthermore, these companies would need to engage with local communities affected by mining activities, aligning with the social responsibility element of ESG frameworks.

Incorporating SSH into ESG policies means that compliance with sustainable practices is no longer voluntary but a legal requirement. It ensures that every stakeholder in the sand mining sector—from multinational corporations to local operators—operates under a unified standard that prioritizes long-term ecological sustainability and community well-being over short-term gains. This approach not only aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but also assures investors, regulators, and the community that the companies are committed to sustainable development practices.

In Vietnam, a recent recommendation by the Central Steering Committee for Natural Disaster Prevention and Control to centralize sand mining oversight highlights a significant opportunity. By adopting the SSH framework, the proposed single Mekong River Authority could standardize and elevate the governance of sand resources across the region. This shift towards a centralized approach would ensure that SSH principles are not just recommended but enforced, creating a model for other nations to follow in embedding scientific and sustainable practices within their national policies on resource management.

Adopting SSH within ESG frameworks could set a precedent for how other critical natural resources are managed globally. It could transform the extractive industry by proving that economic activities can coexist harmoniously with stringent environmental conservation and social welfare standards.

This blog is part of the Wilson Center-East-West Center Vulnerable Deltas project that is diving into climate, plastic waste and development threats to three SE Asian and two Chinese deltas. The project is supported by the Luce Foundation.

Edward Park is an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, where he leads the Tropical Rivers Group investigating how rivers respond to natural hazards and human impacts for sustainable basin management. 

Sources: Elsevier, National Geographic, Nature, RFA, Science of the Total Environment, Straits Times, United Nations Environment Programme

Header Photo Credit: Sand extraction near Long Xuyen – one of the sand mining hotspots along the Mekong delta in Vietnam, photo courtesy of author

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