‘Darkest Place in the World’: Sand Divers In Sri Lanka Risk Health for Lucrative Job


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Sand miners row to shore after collecting a load. The miners dive to the bottom of the Maha Oya river without any special equipment. Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

The underwater miners dig manually in the rivers, without special diving equipment, because of an environmental ban on machinery. Some start this dangerous occupation at age 12 or 13, and they earn good money as the demand for sand in the nation’s construction industry continues to grow.

KOCHCHIKADE, SRI LANKA — Dilantha Chamara Silva learned how to dive for sand in the river near his house when he was 13 years old.

At 36, he is still diving for sand in that same river, the Maha Oya, which flows past his hometown of Kochchikade, about 42 kilometers (26 miles) from Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka.

But the father of three, who works without any special diving equipment, says he has only a few more years of the work in him.

“I dive because I want to live, but I come to the surface because otherwise I will die,” he says.

Manual extraction of sand, which is almost always done by people who dive into riverbeds with tin pails, is the norm in Sri Lanka’s informal sand mining industry. Divers earn good money, and demand for sand in the country’s construction industry continues to grow.

River sand mining has caused erosion, saltwater intrusion, damage to ecosystems and vegetation and other environmental problems. But since the sand is essential to the construction industry, demand for it continues.

The riverbed, where Silva dives for sand, is the darkest place in the world, he says.

“We do this job only for a short time, like four hours a day. If we start at 7 a.m., we stop work at 11 a.m. But the danger is not as short as those four hours.”

The riverbed is, in some places, 40 feet (12 meters) deep, Silva says. The skin on Silva’s face cracks when he emerges from the water. His nose bleeds. Like the other divers he knows, he looks older than his age.

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Dilantha Chamara Silva, 36, learned to dive for sand when he was 13 years old. He plugs his ears with bits of clay to prevent damage to his eardrums.

Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka

Silva will use his hands to dig for sand for as long as he does this work. The government has banned the use of machinery in the river sand mining industry in order to protect the waterways from damage.

“We will only issue permits for river sand mining if it’s done manually,” says T. Dahanayake, a registrar general of mineral titling at the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, the government agency that oversees sand mining. “That means it has to be done using manual digging tools like shovels, buckets and baskets.”

Fewer than 2,000 licenses were issued from January to October 2016 for river sand mining, Dahanayake says.

The demand for river sand increased during the construction boom that came after a tsunami in 2004 destroyed thousands of buildings in Sri Lanka, says Ranjith Ratnayake, country coordinator of the Sri Lanka Water Partnership, which promotes integrated water resource management.

The usual annual need is 7 million cubic meters of sand, he says, citing a report he cowrote in 2013. But after the tsunami, builders needed an additional 10 million cubic meters of sand.

In 2013, the estimated extraction of sand was 12 million cubic meters, according to figures that Ratnayake cited from his report. That estimate includes illegal sand mining, Ratnayake says.

There are about 13,000 people engaged in Sri Lanka’s sand mining industry, according to the Economic Census of 2013/2014 by the Department of Census and Statistics in Sri Lanka. Sand mining accounts for about 37 percent of the country’s mining.

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Antony Subramaniam Theiwana, 27, was a sand miner for a decade until he stopped in 2015. He is pictured here with his wife and son.

Nirasha Piyawadani, GPJ Sri Lanka

For those people, the industry can be lucrative.

On some days, Antony Subramaniam Theiwana, 27, who was a diver for a decade until 2015, earned 20,000 rupees (about $134).

Theiwana says he needed a high-paying job to help his mother through an undiagnosed illness, which made her lethargic and caused pain in her neck and lungs. She died in 2014, and Theiwana continued diving for another six months. Now, he works in a coconut oil mill. He doesn’t have any savings from his time as a diver, despite earning good money.

“It’s all young people who do this job,” he says. “After our working day, we drank because we had money. We spent lavishly on alcohol, cigarettes, cannabis and other drugs.”

One drug was Sudol, to which Theiwana says he’s still addicted. He took it so he could hold his breath underwater for longer periods of time and dive for hours without feeling tired. Many of the divers use the drug without a prescription, he says.

“We felt strong like we could stay underwater for two hours,” he says.

He still takes the drug three times each day, he says.

“Otherwise, I faint,” he says.

Silva, the diver who’s been at work since he was 13, says he was encouraged to take Sudol when he was young. But after a few days, he began to vomit blood and felt nauseous, so he stopped.

“This is a job where you can destroy your life, or you can build your life, it is your decision,” Silva says. “One has to decide whether he goes for fun or moves away from it. Why must we destroy ourselves with hard-earned money?”

Generational poverty is common in the sand mining community, Ratnayake says.

“Many of the sand mining crew start working as young as 12 or 13 years,” Ratnayake says. “They may not start diving immediately, but until they gain enough skill for that, they do other minor tasks like collecting and moving the sand.”

These young boys earn around 1,000 rupees (about $6.75) a day, which adds up to around 30,000 rupees (about $202) a month, Ratnayake says.

“That is more money than some adults with a degree can earn in their job,” he says. “That is a lot of money for a young boy to earn.”

The boys drop out of school, and while they give some of their earnings to their families, they retain enough money to enjoy themselves, Ratnayake says.

Many sand miners live for the moment, Silva says.

“There is a lot of pressure and stress in this work,” Silva says. “We understand its dangers and know it can end soon. So everyone wants to forget the troubles and enjoy themselves every day.”


Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe translated this article from Sinhala.