sand mining africa climate change
Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR.

Sand poaching increases climate change vulnerability in Zimbabwe

Excessive sand poaching in Zimbabwe —in Southeast Africa— is increasing the country’s vulnerability to climate change, local experts said. The illegal activity has already decimated 16 million square metres of biodiversity.

Sand poaching, also known as illegal sand mining, consists of mining sand for commercial purposes. The process has deadly effects for the environment, as it destroys vegetation and digs out deep wide pits, which fill with stagnant water when it rains.

Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association’s (ZELA) legal officer Richard Ncube explained that sand poaching increases the country’s vulnerability to climate change disasters.

“Sand poaching increases the country’s vulnerability to flooding in high rainfall areas, open lands otherwise used for grazing. The practice also threatens wetlands. Sand poaching also affects water availability downstream. This affects water use for [climate] adaptation purposes,” Ncube detailed.

The officer also warned that sand poaching could lead to catastrophes such as siltation and disruptions in the hydrological cycle. According to Ncube, “sand poaching destroys vegetation that plays a critical role in transpiration. It reduces the amount of water vapour released by trees into the atmosphere and this also alters the hydrological cycle.” 

Indeed, according to Ncube, sand poaching removes the grass, which disturbs infiltration and groundwater supply. Sand mining also increases siltation of surface water sources and the risk of flooding. 

Davison Mupeti and Nathan Leander Guma. Land decimated by extensive sand poaching in Mazowe. Photo: Chipa Gonditi.

The sand is usually illegally mined in rural areas and then transported to urban areas and is either made into bricks or sold for building purposes.

Poverty and unemployment remain the main factors pushing people towards sand poaching.

Statistics from the Environmental Management Agency show that, as of December 2019, 9.5 million square meters of land had degraded due to illegal sand poaching in Zimbabwe. In April 2021, the figure had increased to 16 million meters.

Besides unemployment, other factors which have led to the rise of sand poaching in the country include  a high demand of sand and clay by builders and developers.

Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing global development. Importantly, developing countries like Zimbabwe are more vulnerable due to their low adaptive capacity.

Effects of sand poaching on the country

An organisation which has been monitoring sand poaching in Zimbabwe is the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG).

CNRG is a civil society organization established in 2012 to promote inclusive and just governance of natural resources. The organisation formed as a response to growing cases of human rights violations linked to natural resources extraction.

In an interview, CNRG’s Projects Coordinator Tapuwa O’bren Nhachi explained that climate change as a result of sand poaching was stalling the country’s development. Nhachi added that this process would lead to deleterious consequences such as food insecurity.

Photograph showing land decimated by extensive sand poaching in Mazowe
Davison Mupeti and Nathan Leander Guma. Land decimated by extensive sand poaching in Mazowe. Photo: Chipa Gonditi.

According to O’bren Nhachi, sand poaching has serious environmental damage and threatens both human and animals. Combined with veld fires and deforestation, sand poaching enhances the effects of climate change. This puts pressure on the communities’ adaptive capacity.

“Communities fail to protect themselves from climate change impacts such as flash floods and heat waves,” he described.

Nhachi added that “climate change adaptation and resilience are crucial aspects of Zimbabwe’s Climate Change National Response Strategy. Climate change impacts stall the country’s development and posing a serious risk to food security and adaptation capacity,” he said.

As the sand poaching degrades land and vegetation vital to rural ecosystems, rural communities also experience climate change that way.

“Miners extract sand in areas close to town to reduce transport costs.” According to Nhachi, an Environmental Impact Assessments has not been developed “because the whole business is illegal”.

The government’s stance on climate change

Zimbabwe lies in a semi-arid belt of Southern Africa with 80 percent of farming relying on rain-fed agriculture. This increases the vulnerability status of the country as agricultural productivity trends and other indicators follow annual rainfall variability patterns.

Zimbabwe’s National Climate Change Response Strategy highlights that climate change is a threat to the country. The strategy also warns that  not enough resources are available for mitigation measures.

The strategy highlights that Zimbabwe does not to take climate action because of the lack of human, institutional and financial resources.

Davison Mupeti and Nathan Leander Guma. Land decimated by extensive sand poaching in Mazowe

The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) is the statutory body responsible for ensuring the sustainable management of natural resources in Zimbabwe.

EMA’S education and publicity manager Amkela Sidange stated that “the Ministry of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industries engages with local authorities. The aim is that they integrate sand mining into their plans and consider the industry as part of development.”

“The Ministry is also working on community capacity building and community based natural resources management. We [at EMA] are also conducting awareness campaigns in communities that are affected by sand poaching as well as engaging local authorities and sand miners,” she said.

She also pointed out that it was impossible to achieve climate change goals in Zimbabwe without addressing sand poaching.