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Mekong sand mining Covid19

Research project will address ‘hidden impact’ of COVID-19 pandemic

Published on: 5 November 2020

An international team involving geographers at Newcastle University is to look at the impact of COVID-19 on illegal sand mining in the Vietnamese Mekong delta.

Surge in illegal sand mining

The team, led by Southampton University, has been awarded £378,000 from the Global Challenges Research Fund’s (GCRF) Newton Fund to investigate the impact of the surge in illegal sand mining activity during the COVID-19 lockdown on livelihoods and infrastructure from the induced bank erosion. The GCRF Newton Fund aims to promote the economic development and social welfare of partner countries to address the well-being of communities.

Sand is one the most used resources in the world and is routinely mined from large rivers. It is normally subject to regulation, however, during the coronavirus lockdown in Vietnam, illegal sand mining increased in the Mekong delta.  If it is removed more rapidly than river flows replace it, this could lead to a number of adverse impacts such as bank erosion threatening homes and infrastructure.

Working with colleagues at the universities of Southampton and Hull in the UK, as well as Can Tho University, the University of Mining and Geology and the Southern Institute of Water Resources Research in Vietnam, the team will quantify and predict the extent to which this increase in sand mining will further stimulate bank erosion in the forthcoming monsoon season when river banks become saturated, and the subsequent dry season when bank collapse is usually triggered.

The work will build on research that has already been carried out by the team into sediment delivery from the Mekong River and the effects of flood and droughts on the livelihoods in the Mekong delta.

The year-long “Ongoing impacts from the surge in sand mining during COVID-19: Enhanced river bank erosion hazard and risk in Vietnam’s Mekong delta” project involves Dr Christopher Hackney from the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University. Dr Hackney said: “The pandemic has led to many changes in Vietnam – not just in the movement of people out of cities back to rural areas but also changes to the physical landscape due to a reported growth in illegal sand mining during lockdown. These changes can be seen on satellite imagery, and this work will help us create heat maps of where the most activity has taken place, and where the threats are most immediate.

“The recovery of the Vietnamese economy from the impact of the pandemic will be driven by the huge growth in construction that the country is experiencing. It is therefore essential that we identify vulnerable areas and work with our partners to develop solutions.”

Envisat image of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Image courtesy of ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Shaping policy in the region

Newcastle University is leading the UKRI GCRF Living Deltas Hub, which aims to safeguard delta futures through more resilient communities. Focusing on three deltas in Asia, the Hub operates on a model of equitable partnership with the delta-dwellers and the research community in Vietnam, Bangladesh and India, working together with UK and global partners to develop new knowledge and policies to develop solutions that can help better realise the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in delta-specific contexts.

The “Ongoing impacts from the surge in sand mining during COVID-19: Enhanced river bank erosion hazard and risk in Vietnam’s Mekong delta” project is led by Dr Julian Leyland, Associate Professor in Physical Geography, Southampton University, who said: “South East Asia’s COVID-19 recovery is likely to be heavily reliant on an expanded construction industry which will create high demand for sand across the region. This work is urgent because of concerns that COVID-19-related mining has primed the system for severe erosion during the monsoon season. The results will guide remediation efforts and aid attempts to promote stronger regulation of sand mining, both post- coronavirus and for any future disrupting events that could potentially lead to an upsurge in illegal mining.

“We will use state-of-the-art remote sensing techniques to monitor mining activity in near real time via tracking of sand-laden boats from high resolution satellite imagery, as well as assessing the rates of bank erosion and the recent large-scale movements of populations in the delta linked with the lockdown. We will also be working with our Vietnamese partners to collect field data and run models of bank erosion so that we can project future rates and impacts of erosion, transferring these onto maps of vulnerable people and infrastructure.

“Our research will result in opportunities to shape policy in the region and address one of the ‘hidden impacts’ of the COVID-19 crisis. We hope that by sharing our knowledge with key stakeholders, it can help mitigate the situation and avoid extraction in particularly sensitive areas of the river - providing a legacy that will hopefully last long after COVID-19.”

Press release adapted with thanks to the University of Southampton


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