Mining, development and environment

5 March 2020 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


There was a recent news report that the drinking water supplied by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board in Kalutara area had been mixed with saltwater as a result of sand mining. The residents in the area, claimed that sand mining at the river had deepened the river bed and the sea water had easily flown into the Kalu Ganga. This had increased the salinity in the river water.   

There were also reports that the residents in Padiyathalawa, Ampara have experienced difficulties in getting their daily work done due to the damages caused to the roads by the constant traveling of heavy sand/soil/gravel/graphite –laden trucks. These vehicle to movements have totally destroyed the main entrance road to several villages in the area including Padiyathalawa, Kolaniya, Holike, and Thalaapitaoya.  

These reports of inconveniences and difficulties experienced by the people arise in the context of increase of irregular mining and the transportation of sand and other minerals sans permits.   

Sri Lanka is a country blessed with an abundant of natural resources necessary for various industries. As Sri Lanka is economically developing and cities are growing, the persistent demand in the construction industries for minerals such as sand, soil, gravel, clay and graphite is rising. While we use these resources to enhance the lives of the people in Sri Lanka, it is also necessary to ensure that they are extracted and used in a manner that does not endanger the very lives we seek to empower.   

Legal framework

Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) is the government agency empowered to regulate exploration and mining for minerals, processing, transporting, storing, trading in and export of such minerals, by the issue of licenses. And the relevant law and procedure that shall be followed in issuing licenses by the GSMB is laid down in the Mines and Minerals Act No. 33 of 1992 (as amended) and regulations made under the Act.    According to Section 28 of the Act, “No person shall explore for, mine, transport, process, store, trade in or export any minerals except under the authority of, or otherwise than in accordance with, a licenses issued in that behalf under the provisions of this Act and the regulations made there under”.  

This indicated that the power of GSMB to issue license is not absolute and shall be done subject to the restrictions and conditions laid down in the provisions of the Act and regulations. 

According to the Section 61 of the Act a license holder can only carry out the authorised mining activities in compliance with standards and procedures as are prescribed by the National Environment Act, No. 47 of 1980. And also a holder of a license is legally obliged to restore and rehabilitate the land on which such exploration or mining had been carried out. 

This establishes a link between the National Environmental Act and the Mines and Minerals Act and the institutions created by these two Acts.  

Since December 2019, there were a series of decisions made by the Cabinet and the GSMB, that have blatantly disregarded the laws of the country.

On December 4, 2019 the newly appointed Cabinet of Ministers by way of a Cabinet Decision, removed the existing requirement on obtaining permits for the transportation of sand, soil and clay. According to the Cabinet, the underlying purpose was to facilitate the local and construction industries in securing necessary materials and the reduction of prices. However, this decision violates the laws of the country and neglects the duty of the Cabinet under the Directive Principles of State Policy to give due consideration to the protection and promotion of the environment as set out in the Constitution.   

And on December 18, 2019 the Cabinet approved the proposal to amend the Section 28 and 30 of the Mines and Minerals Act citing the need to simplify the existing procedure for issuance of mining licenses in order to facilitate the industrialists.    
Subsequently, Circular No. 173/12/2019 dated 31.12.2019 was issued by the Director General of GSMB. 
In terms of the said Circular No. 173/12/2019, GSMB can issue mining permits/licenses to applicants who have not compiled with environmental recommendations of the Central Environmental Authority.   
  • Ensure that they are extracted and used in a manner that does not endanger the very lives we seek to empower
  • Since 2019, there were a series of decisions made by the Cabinet and the GSMB, that have blatantly disregarded the laws

Immediate aftermath

Although the aforesaid measures were welcomed by the construction industry stating the unnecessary delays and corruption prevailed in the previous system, environmentalists and public across Sri Lanka raised their concerns over illegal mining that has accelerated as a result of the shortsighted decisions of the government.   

Possible impacts

It is evident that the removal of transport permits and the dispensing from the requirement to obtain environmental recommendations from the CEA can result in environmental, social and economic problems linked to the livelihoods of people, agriculture, health and land.  

Possible Impacts on the environment are as follows,

  • River sand mining can alter the river beds, movement of water and sediment. Degradation of the river bed, erosion of the banks and encroachment of the river buffer zone.
  • Increase the salinity of river waters.
  • River sand mining can result in insufficient sand to form shoreline and beaches.
  • River sand mining can cause sea erosion.
  • Destruction of habitats and ecosystems.
  • Loss of bio-diversity.
  • Loss of riparian lands.
  • Cause soil erosion.
  • Depletion of coastal sand barriers and beaches that provide important protection against sea surges and tsunamis.
  • Landslides.  

Social and economic impacts linked to the livelihoods of people, agriculture, health and land are as follows,   

Impacts on water

Impact on water security (further magnified by rises in sea-level and climate change). Decrease groundwater levels. 

  • Deterioration of water quality. Salinization.
  • Impacts on land
  • Land degradation, loss of riparian lands.  
  • Impacts on agriculture.  

Salinity intrusion causing impacts on agriculture and food security. 

Droughts and flooding

The removal of transport permits and the dispensing from the requirement to obtain environmental recommendations from the CEA in order to expedite the permit issuing process is clearly shortsighted and irrational. 

And as stated by Hon. Justice Shiranee Thilakawardena in the case Watte Gedera Wijebanda v Conservator General of Forests and Others [2009 1 SLR 337 at p. 362] “The power of the state and public servants to grant or refuse licenses and take suitable action for the protection and conservation of both the environment and natural resources is derived from its status as a public trustee. In this capacity state officials have a paramount duty to serve as a safeguard against private and commercial exploitation of common property resources, and the degeneration of the environment due to private acts. The principle of inter-generational equity and the long-term sustainability of our delicate eco-system and biological diversity vests mainly in the hands of such officials”.   

Therefore any decision taken by the government in furtherance of development and economic progress of Sri Lanka shall give due consideration for sustainable development as Justice Prasanna Jayawardena in the case Ravindra Gunawardena Kariyawasam v Central Environment Authority and others (SC/FR Application No. 141/2015 decided on 04.04.2019 at p.51) pointed out  “that projects in the name of `Development‟ which harm the environment result more in a deterioration in the quality of life of people of the country which comes inevitably with the destruction of the environment, than in true development”.

Environmental Foundation

(Guarantee) Limited

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