– By Taffy Shearing March 2010
I looked into sand mining on the Gats River for Heritage SA. Everywhere environmentalists are deeply concerned about the rate that state-owned concerns are issuing prospecting rights which seem to be run by different sets of rules that avoid environmental scrutiny.
The Gats River is in the Sneeuberg, running through rocky ravines into the better- known and longer Sundays River, which becomes the Gamtoos River. The mouth is near Jeffreys Bay in the Eastern Cape. Sand mining has taken place on the Gats since the Fourie Brothers, farmers and developers, began mining sand on their property on the Gats River over 8 years ago.
When this sand was exhausted they applied to the Department of Mineral and Energy in Port Elizabeth for a license to mine sand in the Gats on Dalham, the farm below belonging to Mr Garry Holmes. When interviewed he said he had tried everything to stop them, but they obtained a sand mining license against his better judgment and had mined sand on his property whenever they wanted. He eventually obtained an agreement with the Brothers that they wouldn’t mine when he had guests in his cottages along the river. Mr Holmes said the developers claim that they have rights to mine on Dalham for another six years, but he disputed this.
While a river full for sand near Graaff-Reinet is a resource for the builder, does the constant mining of the sand have a negative effect on the environment of the river itself?
I asked Mr Nic van der Westhuizen of Liquo Farm, embracing the confluence of the Gats and the Sundays Rivers, if the sand mining on Dalham above him had an effect on his environment. He said he bought the property eight years ago and was adamant that sand mining had changed the environment in the river bed and estimated that it had resulted in his stretch of the river being scoured out to the depth of 1.5m. He had spoken to Land Affairs, but had little response because the license to mine sand was issued by the Dept of Mineral and Energy. He has had to extend his farm fences due to this erosion to keep his stock in, and says that it is having an increasing impact.
Van der Westhuizen insisted that constant sand mining for building purposes was reducing vegetation along the river and that erosion of the river bed lower down was inevitable.
Mr Joe Kroon, Chairman of the Graaff-Reinet Farmers’ Union, said that it appeared that the Fourie Brothers only were active along the Gats River. The Sundays River was not involved because there was no building sand in it. He said that the issuing of licenses to mine sand was controlled by the Department of Mineral and Energy and that there was no forum for consultation or participation by organized agriculture over sand mining licences as far as he was aware.
It seems to be a pity that the environmental advantages of river sand in the ecology of the river system seems to be ignored, especially in the Midlands which are liable to extensive droughts. In other parts of the Karoo farmers picked up the idea of sand dams from Namibia’s farmers and have experimented with them.
A sand dam is made by building a low concrete wall across a sandy river, which then fills up with sand after a good run of the river. This wall was raised with every run of the river, trapping the sand, which held the runoff water, the sand preventing evaporation. The water trapped in the sand fed the roots of riverine plants and trees ensuring strong vegetation along the river banks.
Sand in a river is not just gritty stuff, a must-have on the builder’s shopping list.
Sand in a river is part of the riverine system and should be treated with respect. Mining licenses should be granted for limited periods with this in mind. Sand at present appears to be an underrated component of the natural environment; although it sustaines the riverine ecology and prevents the horrors of the past – extensive erosion along South African riverbanks.