Illegal sand exploitation has caused erosion at most rivers across Vietnam and damaged farms and gardens along riverbanks for about a decade, but has only just been put on the agenda of a meeting of the central government lately.
The government organized an online meeting on Tuesday with law enforcement bodies of provinces and cities to find solutions to the problem.
It was chaired by two deputy premiers, Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Hoang Trung Hai.
Sand exploitation is so severe that Deputy Prime Minister Phuc kicked off the meeting by asking officials to speak frankly about the long-standing and ongoing issue.
Many individuals have taken part in exploiting sand from rivers on a large scale.
They build wooden ships with a capacity of up to a hundred tons that are installed with powerful pumps to suck sand from the bottom of rivers.
Within a couple of hours at night, a ship can be filled to that capacity and carried for sale at private ports along riverbanks.
It all happens publicly but has never been stopped by authorities.
In some cases, ships have even approached riverbanks and used their spout to suck up sand with high power pumps.
Within a short period of time, illegal sand exploitation can cause a large farm or garden to disappear, provoking an angry response from people living along riverbanks, especially in the Mekong Delta region.
On being detected by authorities, offenders will deliberately sink their ship to destroy the evidence.
Rivers that have been heavily exploited this way include the Dong Nai River in the southern province of Dong Nai, the Tien and Hau Rivers in the Mekong Delta, the Da Nhim River in the Central Highlands region, the Vu Gia and Thu Bon Rivers in the central region, and the Hong River in the north.
In addition to pumping sand from rivers, in order to continue the practice, last year offenders uprooted vast aspen forests planted on sandy soil along the coast of the central province of Quang Ngai.
The exploitation of such a large amount of sand has changed water flow in rivers, created erosion on riverbanks and formed dangerous whirlpools.
Loss of trillions of dong
Deputy Premier Phuc stressed during the online meeting that Vietnam has never banned exploiting sand and gravel from the bottom of rivers and seas, but it must comply with state plans and current laws and regulations.
The excessive exploitation of sand has resulted in serious consequences for the environment and the state budget, he said.
Police and authorities in some locations have overlooked the illegal activity in order to take bribes, the official added.
Normal people have protested and vented their anger on authorities who have failed to eradicate the illegal practice.
In a recent check in Thuong Tin District, Hanoi, which has been a so-called ‘hot spot’ of illegal sand exploitation, including from the Hong River, Deputy PM Phuc confirmed that the capital city has lost trillions of dong (VND1 trillion = US$44.4 million) because of illegal sand pumping.
The official instructed authorities of different levels, starting from the grassroots level of communes, to point out the responsibility of individuals and bodies who have let the problem continue for years.
Senior Lieutenant General Dang Van Hieu, Deputy Minister of Public Security, told the online meeting that many instances of fighting against law enforcement agencies by illegal sand dredgers have taken place since 2009.
Hoang Van Thang, Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, warned at the meeting that the over-exploitation has created an imbalance in the environment.
The average water level of the Hong River has considerably lowered, down by two meters. It results from the depression in the river bottom on account of excessive sand exploitation.
On average, the Mekong Delta region has lost 500 hectares of land a year because of erosion, the deputy minister confirmed.
A similar situation has occurred along the sea bank in Hoi An, located in the central province of Quang Nam.
Nguyen Van Pha, deputy chairman of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, blamed illegal sand exploitation and said it cannot take place publicly like that unless it is protected by state officials and local authorities.