It is against the law, yet there is unregulated sand mining on beaches of Lake Malawi, with trucks ferrying sand every day from Salima to Lilongwe for construction purposes, a development which threatens both tourism and the livelihoods, a newly released United Nations (UN) report has warned.
The report, released in the week, titled ‘Rising demand for sand calls for resource governance’, has noted with concern an increase of what it calls ‘sand mafias’ who are mining the resource without regard for the environment and the attendant socio-economic impact.
Local experts also fear that the mining may affect fisheries, which supports 1.6 million people in the country, according to the Annual Economic Report (2018).
The report says the fish sector employs over half a million people and contributes about 4 percent to the GDP. In 2017 alone, fish raked in K173 billion, with Lake Malawi as the biggest contributor.
Nation on Sunday has uncovered a thriving illegal sand mining business on the beaches of Lake Malawi in Salima, involving locals who are cashing in from construction companies.
A University of Malawi Fish and Freshwater specialist Wisdom Changadeya said if the mining is taking place very close to the waters it disturbs breeding sites for fish which may lead to the declining of the number of fish in the lake.
“We must really avoid mining in the lake side, we can look elsewhere, where the impact would be minimal,” he said.
The development has also left owners of hospitality units worried about the future of their businesses.
Wyne Jones, who runs a cottage in Salima, said the wanton sand mining is eating into the beaches of the lake.
“I have been here for the past 30 years, but I have not seen this wanton extraction of sand as I see it today,” said Jones.
Samantha Ludick, another property owner who is also chairperson of the community policing comprising property owners, chiefs and district authorities in Salima, expressed frustration that trucks are invading the beach every day, without anyone stopping them.
The frustration on the beach is wide and far-reaching. A French tourist, who is on a month-long vacation at a lodge in Senga Bay, shared her thoughts: “It is boring to jog in the sand because of the mud and the hard surface because the beautiful sand is gone. The deep dugouts are also scaring.”
While there seems to be no action to tame the illegal mining, the laws of Malawi declare the beaches as protected zones.
Section 47 (1) of the Environment Management Act (2017) reads: “The Authority shall, in liaison with relevant lead agencies, take all measures necessary in order to protect the river and the lake basin in Malawi from human activities that adversely affect the rivers and lakes”.
Similarly, the National Land Policy declares any land 50 metres from the lake as public land and protected zone. The Mines and Minerals Act says all minerals in Malawi, including sand, “are vested in the President on behalf of the people of Malawi”.
During our investigation, we tracked some vehicles which transport huge volumes of sand almost on a daily basis from Salima to Lilongwe.
Two of the trucks we saw, allegedly from ADLA Construction, carry a combined tonnage of about 50 tonnes a day and have been on their beats for six days a week since November, according to drivers and the supervisor of the trucks, we spoke to.
Our visit to the areas where they often extract sand, near Kambiri Lodge, deep dugouts are seen all over the place.
“We pay the people who own this area K30 000 to access the sand and K15 000 to the boys who load the sand,” explained Preet, who is the supervisor of the trucks.
In a telephone interview, ADLA Construction owner Azmy Jawad admitted to have been mining the sand from Salima using the vehicles we captured, but he claimed he did not know it was illegal until someone called him on Wednesday and told him so.
Jawad said he preferred the lake sand because “the river sand is not [of] good quality for us to use it in a big building”.
“It is costing me more than buying river sand, but I have to sacrifice because I need good sand for the concrete,” he said.
Apart from the two trucks, we were able to capture several others; some apparently only showed up once a day.
We saw money changing hands between a group of men who illegally control the beaches–with drivers of two 3–tonne pickups which often make two to four trips a day, according to locals. Both were loading sand in front of Kambiri Lodge.
But Kambiri Lodge manager Ishmael Chizakula told Nation on Sunday that they never benefitted from proceeds of the illegal mining, saying if anything they wished this was stopped in the interest of beaches and their business.
Nation on Sunday has seen WhatsApp group discussions which include the district commissioner (DC), commandant from the Malawi Armed Forces College, the police in-charge for Salima, chiefs and lodge owners where they alert one another of these illegal activities.
One of the messages we saw on the group, apparently from a lodge owner, read: “Have just passed four yellow Mahindra trucks and one white Tata, three on road to Wheelhouse and the other before that turnoff, so they could be going anywhere. Your hardwork just being ignored and truckloads are increasing, not decreasing”.
But even with this tip-off, there was no response from responsible officials on the forum and the trucks we followed were left scot-free passing through police roadblocks all the way to Lilongwe.
A letter we have seen, dated May 3 2019, from Salima DC Charles Mwawembe, copied to the Department of Mining, Environmental Affairs Department and the National Construction Industry Council (NCIC), requests Salima Police to enforce a stop order to companies and individuals mining the sand from the beaches.
But days after the letter to the police, the situation remains the same.
In an interview, Mwawembe said they are waiting from the police to act on the request. Police had not responded to our questionnaire submitted on Thursday.
Centre for Environmental Policy Action (Cepa) executive director William Chadza said illegal sand mining is a manifestation of a bigger challenge where government does not seem to priortise the environment as a key component of economic growth.
The UN report indicates that the demand for sand has increased three-fold over the last two decades due to population growth, urbanisation and infrastructure. The report estimates that 50 billion tonnes per year is what is needed, an average of 18 kilogrammes per person per day.
“We need to recognise the interdependence between countries and sectors and learn lessons on how to manage this critical resource sustainably,” acting executive director for UN – Environmental Programme Joyce Msuya is quoted as saying in the report.
National Construction Industry Council (NCIC) chief executive officer Linda Phiri refused to comment, saying the issue was outside the council’s mandate.