Rapid urbanisation is driving up demand for sand in Bangladesh, leading to uncontrolled and mostly illegal extraction of sandstone and rocks from the riverbeds.

The hunger for sand is threatening the flood embankments around the Jamuna river and putting farmland at risk in Tangail and Sirajganj districts in northern Bangladesh, threatening the livelihoods of local farmers.

“They illegally take away all the sand from the riverbed using trucks after dredging, creating a sinkhole … All this is now destroying our homes and farms and causing lots of damage to the embankment,” said Ratna Khatun, 35, who lives in Koijuri village along the Jamuna river in Sirajganj.

“Raw gold”, as the sand lifters call it, does not cost them much to extract but fetches good money.

Abur Rhaman Khan, 70, says they are losing ancestral land in Tangail because of the river being dredged by the local authorities.

“They are illegally dredging our land to make way for a new course for the river, ignoring a court writ. They are grabbing our ancestral land by force, without paying any compensation to the villagers.”

Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive at the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, told Al Jazeera that sand mining is largely unregulated.

“We have a very weak legal framework on the subject. And even this weak legal framework is not implemented either in declaring a particular area for sand mining or regulating the actual mining activities.”

One percent of the agricultural land in Bangladesh is disappearing every year because of its fast-growing economy and rapid urbanisation, according to the urban development foundation, CEUD.

Rasul Khan, a 58-year-old farmer from Noleen village in Tangail, said the family’s rice field has been destroyed by sand dumped on their farmland.

“We are requesting compensation from the prime minister for the damage. These are our ancestral lands and we have all the documents to prove it.”

The United Nations’ environment agency says global demand for sand – currently between 40-50 billion tonnes a year – is an emerging crisis for the world.

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