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Mechanized Sand Mining in the Maha Oya, Sri Lanka


Maha Oya is one of the largest rivers in Sri Lanka. More than 1.1 million people live in the area, harnessing myriad of benefits from the river that provides water for domestic and industrial needs and is at the basis of subsistence and livelihood activities of local communities. Hence, continuous river flow and good health of the riverine environment is of vital importance in terms of socio-economic and environmental aspects.

Since the 1970s, the Maha Oya is one of the most popular sources of high quality river sand in Sri Lanka. Over the time, due to the free economic policies and the construction boom the pressure on the river as sand provider has dramatically increased. Therefore, since the late 1980s, the sand mining in the Maha Oya and clay mining in the hinterland have been exacerbating, giving rise to a number of environmental and socio-economic problems.

Excessive sand mining activities in the Maha Oya cause reduction of sand supply to the coastline, breaking the natural sand equilibrium of the beaches. The indiscriminate sand extraction from the river leads to lack of sand availability for replenishing the beaches which are naturally washed away by the wave action. The coastal stretch from Negombo to Chilaw has been identified as the most eroded coastline in Sri Lanka by the Coastal Zone Management Plan in 2006, of which 80-85% of the degradation is attributed to exacerbate sand mining in the Maha Oya. At certain places such as Katuneriya and Lansiagama, the erosion rate is 12-15m/year. Due to the coastal erosion in Wennappuwa and Nattandiya DS divisions, over 1,000 of families lost their properties over the span of a 20 year period giving rise to a number of adverse impacts including loss of homes and other properties, and loss of livelihoods. Some of these displaced communities have been living in temporarily built sheds for nearly 3 years since 2009.

By the Maha Oya River there are more than 1,000 people engaged in traditional mining activities. Due to the sharp increase of sand price during the last decade, today there are many business groups interested in such profitable activity. Following the Environmental Foundation Limited, these business groups carry out illegal mining using heavy mechanical equipment. Mechanical River Sand Mining (RSM) in the Maha Oya has been completely banned since 2004 because it causes more damage to the riverine environment than traditional artisan mining and because the extraction rate of the sand is far higher than that of artisan mining causing bank erosion and depletion of sand deposits.

The banning of Mechanical RSM is the outcome of a conflict involving the local communities engaged in traditional sand mining against the mentioned business groups.

Tensions within communities occurred as the benefits of RSM were passed on to private players engaging in the sand mining business and to urban communities who enjoyed the benefit of better infrastructure. Local communities had to manage the negative impacts of extractions for which they were not compensated in any way.

This led the communities living along Maha Oya to file Public Interest Litigation (PIL) with the legal support of the Environmental Foundation Ltd. (EFL). As a result of the PIL, sand mining was completely banned. The court also demanded periodic reports from the police to ensure progress was made.

In addition to this positive outcome, two local organizations, SLWP (Sri Lanka Water Partnership) and NetWwater (Network of Women Water Professionals) launched a campaign against illegal sand mining in 2005. Therefore the legal efforts to confront the practice of indiscriminate sand mining have been accompanied by SLWP creating awareness and further mobilising communities to take concerted action. As a result, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources issued a 'Draft National Policy on Sand as a Resource for the Construction Industry' in 2005. [1][2][3]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Mechanized Sand Mining in the Maha Oya, Sri Lanka
Country:Sri Lanka
State or province:Western Province
Location of conflict:Katana
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Building materials extraction (quarries, sand, gravel)
Specific commodities:Sand, gravel

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The annual sand requirement of the country is nearly 8.5 million cubes in year as recorded in 2010 with an increase of 5-10% per annum [1].

The coastal stretch from Negombo to Chilaw has been identified as the most eroded coastline in Sri Lanka by the Coastal Zone Management Plan in 2006, of which 80-85% of the degradation is attributed to exacerbate sand mining in the Maha Oya. At certain places such as Katuneriya and Lansiagama, the erosion rate is 12-15m/year [1].

Level of Investment:unknown
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:01/01/2004
End of the conflict:08/05/2015
Relevant government actors:Central Environmental Authority (CEA)
Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB)
Relevant Divisional Secretariats
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Environmental Foundation Limited
NetWwater (Network of Women Water Professionals)
SLWP (Sri Lanka Water Partnership)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Artisanal miners
Informal workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Other Environmental impactsSea erosion is another significant secondary effect due to insufficient sediment flow through the rivers. In particular, concerns are raised about the increasing damage to drinking water sources, loss and damage to irrigation systems and agricultural lands and spread of vector borne diseases by providing the breeding grounds for mosquitoes [2].
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Land dispossession
Other socio-economic impactsLowering of the water table causing problems in water accessibility
Salinity intrusion to the river and other fresh water systems due to lowered river bed and water table
Loss of biodiversity and associated impacts on tourism and recreational value of the river
Impacts on the livelihoods and subsistence of the communities [1].
Uncontrolled sand mining has caused destruction to the natural morphology of many rivers, which had instigated structural problems to structures across the rivers such as bridges, barrages and fresh water intakes [2].
Portable water supplies to heavily populate coastal belt including capital city Colombo is supplied by the water drawn from the main rivers. Locations of these intakes have been designed carefully after studying the profile of the river, low flow conditions and the change of tidal levels. When most of these intakes were located few decades back it was not anticipated the river beds would lower to the levels now prevail. With the current levels of river beds that had been unexpectedly lowered, sea water intrusion along the river has become a permanent threat to water quality and quantity. It has now become necessary to change the location of intake in some water supply schemes. Replacement of a water supply intake may cost SL Rs 20 million (for new facilities) while the original investment has now become defunct [2].


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New legislation
Development of alternatives:Local EJOs ask the application of the local regulations by local authorities.
Communities defend artisan mining practices, which have much lower impacts.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:Mechanized sand mining was prohibited under the National Environmental Act 47 1980 by Gazette notification No. 1454/4 – 17 July, 2006.
Areas such as 100m from the Jambugaswatte area and 2km of both sides of Kochchikade main bridge were declared environmentally sensitive areas of the river and were protected.
In 2015, the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau drafted the Management Plan for Maha Oya with the participation of wider stakeholders along the river. The ongoing Maha Oya River Management Plan is expected to regularise mining activities, restore degraded areas, monitor illegal mining and effluent discharges whilst harvesting river sand in a sustainable manner.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Mines and Minerals Act No.33 of 1992 as amended in 2009

[1] Report by: Environmental Foundation Ltd., MAHA OYA UNDER THREAT. 2016, Sri Lanka. (Accessed 14/08/2016)

[2] Report by: B. Kamaladasa, Issues and challenges in river management due to excessive sand

mining. Irrigation Department of Sri Lanka Colombo (Accessed 14/08/2016)

[3] Report by: Water Integrity In Action, Curbing Illegal Sand Mining in Sri Lanka. 2013 (Accessed 14/08/2016)

Meta information

Contributor:Environmental Foundation Limited and EJAtlas collaborator Paola Camisani
Last update18/08/2019



River sand mining in Maha Oya. Source: Environmental Foundation Ltd.


Eroded river bank of the Maha-Oya, 2011. Source: Environmental Foundation Ltd.


A map of mined pits along the downstream of the Maha Oya. Source: Environmental Foundation Ltd.