How unregulated sand mining is depleting farmland in Nigeria

Sand. The world’s great cities are built of it: The concrete that is used to give shape to buildings, the glass we use for windows and the pavement for roads are all  made of sand.

So mountains of sand – nearly 50 billion tons of it – are extracted every year from lakes, riverbeds and coastlines around the world, and one of the countries leading in sand mining is Nigeria. But this massive industry goes largely unregulated by the government and as a result it is causing severe environmental damage.

The Premium Times’ reporter Qosim Suleiman, who is a corps member with our Report for the World service program, last week published an in-depth investigation into the problems sand mining are causing for farmers and environmentalists in and around Kano, a city in the north that is the second largest in Nigeria after Lagos.

As Suleiman writes, “Without regulations, the extraction is wreaking havoc; escalating the risk of erosion, undermining protection against storm surges and impacting biodiversity. It has also affected water supply, food production and fisheries, all of which pose a threat to the livelihood of people in the affected areas and beyond.”

We believe Suleiman’s reporting is a strong example of the kind of in-depth, investigative work that Report for the World host newsrooms are taking on, and we put a few questions to him to better understand the depth of the issue and to go behind the scenes to hear about how he put this impressive reporting project together.

GroundTruth: You write that sand mining is a “silent global environmental problem that is largely ungoverned.” You also write that 50 billion tons of sand is mined across the world, making it the most extracted material in volume in the world, according to the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP.)  Why is there so much demand for sand in Nigeria? 

Qosim Suleiman: I said it is a ‘silent global environmental problem’ because in the course of researching the story, I found that it is not an isolated case in Kano or Nigeria. Across the world, communities –especially coastal communities– are facing similar challenges. Yet, governments across the world have turned a blind eye to the phenomenon.

Nigeria has one of the fastest growing populations in the world which automatically means an increased construction activities to accommodate the growing population and their businesses. Sand, being the primary raw material for construction –from brick making to bricklaying–, therefore, became a treasured material. For context, real estate, as in anywhere in the world, is a big business in Nigeria.

GT: Given the perils that sand extraction is causing for Nigeria’s rivers and lakes, why has the Nigerian government and global governing bodies such as the UN failed to take any action to regulate the mining operations?  And why have political leaders not spoken out about this?

Suleiman: Governments across the world have only paid lip service to controlling the phenomenon even though it is architecting not just environmental problems, but conflicts in countries such as India where there’s been a rise in what is called ‘Sand Mafias’. In Nigeria, there are several government agencies that should regulate mining and rivers, but regulations have been extremely low.

GT: Why is it important for an American audience to know about the global extraction of sand from countries from Nigeria to Vietnam?

Suleiman: This story, although set in Nigeria, is not a Nigerian problem. It is a global problem that the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has acknowledged. Americans should look around them and they’ll find that the problem is probably closer to them than they’ve paid attention to.

GT: What does the mining industry say in defense of its extractive operations which are causing such environmental damage? 

Suleiman: Sadly, the miners did not see anything wrong with what was happening. They believed it was enough for them to secure licenses from the government, and they do not care about the after effects of their activities.

GT: Your data visualization of the problem is outstanding, can you explain your process?

Suleiman: I needed to show the scale of the phenomenon. I desperately wanted to show how the phenomenon grew over the years but there’s hardly any reliable data to do that. So, I decided to use the google earth satellite image. Using the Google Earth Pro, I got the snapshot of the same area for each year for the past few years. That way, I was able to show how the sand mining activities expanded the river bank.

GT: What was the most important thing you learned through your reporting on this project? 

Suleiman: The most important thing I learned is the importance of adopting technological tools in presenting stories. I believe the use of satellite images to reveal the scale of the situation I was reporting on, gave it more credibility and helped readers understand it better than they would if the satellite images were not extracted.

GT: Do you see any proposed solutions to addressing the problem, and will you be continuing to report on the story?

Suleiman: The solution, according to experts, is to plan and invest in alternative materials for construction as well as robust regulation of the sector.

I am actively following events closely as they unfold as it relates to my reporting on sand mining.