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While banning river-based sand and gravel extraction (or tightly restricting it with extraction being limited to within annual regeneration) are desirable ultimate goals, the unintended consequences of imposing policies in isolation can include supply shortages affecting economic development and delaying construction programs, rising “black market” prices for sand and even potential for criminalization of extraction (described by UNEP as the “sand mafias”).


Hence, the solutions for addressing the impacts of river-based sand and gravel extraction should therefore ideally consider the wider implications for overall sustainable development, putting in place practical solutions which can assure a managed transition to the ultimate goal with a portfolio of measures which fulfil overall national sustainable development objectives, balancing environmental, social and economic outcomes. For the Mekong Delta, specific lessons can be learnt to adopt policies which can satisfy the various interest groups in the economic landscape.


Given the gravity of the current situation in the VMD, the starting point for permitting should be that extraction is permitted only in specific, highly defined blocks of material with precise Cartesian co-ordinates and when the maximum volume of material to be extracted can be delineated by the permitting authority. With sufficient professional resources and equipment, individual blocks can be identified for auctioning to accredited operators.


As confirmation of the advisability of such a strategy, a 2017 report by the Institute of Transport Science and Technology suggested to the HCMC Department of Transport indicated that artificial sand could be made for up to 15% more cheaply than mining natural sand and that it makes better quality concrete. The shortage has apparently been partly created by a government crackdown on illegal sand dredging. The effectiveness of this campaign led to a 200% rise in prices, and this in turn has put pressure on infrastructure projects with large concrete requirements. Maybe the transition to alternatives to river sand is already taking place, driven by market forces.


In private discussions with a senior member of the Viet Nam construction materials industry, the Consultants were advised that typical maritime transport costs of dry bulk materials from central Viet Nam to the VMD is of the order of $5-8/m3 for a distance of 500km. If the cash costs of M-sand production (including capital) is of the order of $4-7/m3, it means that sand prices in the MKD would need to be over $12-16/m3 to provide a strong commercial incentive to switch to M-sand from central Vietnam. With sand prices in the VMD now reported to be up to $10/m3 in the wet season and up to $16/m3 in the dry busy construction season (driven by a huge demand in highway construction), this means that the market conditions are now emerging that will incentivise the investment in the production of M-sand and its transportation to the buoyant VMD market.


Optionally, until such quarries can be developed, aggregates and/or manufactured could be imported from responsible international suppliers. Importation has advantage of quickly acting to reduce the current over-extraction in the Mekong Delta until the indigenous hard-rock quarries in Viet Nam can fill the demand gap.