Illegal gold mining threatens Indus River water and biodiversity in Pakistan (commentary)

The Indus River in Pakistan is being extensively disturbed by unregulated mining of the river’s bed (‘placer mining’) for gold.Numerous operations employing an estimated 1,200 heavy machines dig daily into the riverbed and dump buckets of sediment and rocks into screening devices, destroying habitat and muddying the water flowing downstream.“It is crucial to the development for the region’s economy and environmental preservation efforts to regulate placer gold blocks along the Indus River,” a new op-ed argues.This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Illegal placer gold mining along the scenic Indus River in the area of Nizampur, District Nowshera, has escalated to alarming levels, posing a dual threat to national assets and the delicate biodiversity of the region. Despite the presence of local authorities, these activities persist due to the influence of a powerful mafia operating with impunity. The illicit mining activities, spearheaded by the well-connected and influential mafia, involve the deployment of an extensive fleet of more than 1,200 heavy machines along the riverbanks. This machinery is causing irreparable damage to, and depletion of, valuable national assets, and severe disruption of aquatic life.

With the nation already grappling with a severe financial crisis and soaring inflation rates, the illicit placer gold mining activities compound economic woes. In a situation where every resource is crucial to alleviate financial strains, the failure to promptly address this issue signifies a missed opportunity to utilize a valuable resource for the country’s benefit. Instead of contributing to the national treasury, the illegally-extracted placer gold further deepens the economic crisis. Many citizens express frustration over the dual impact of economic challenges and environmental concerns resulting from unregulated mining.

A bulldozer dumps a bucket of river sediment into a sifting device used by unregulated gold miners along the banks of the Indus River in Nowshera District, Pakistan. Image courtesy of Sabir Hussain.

Despite the efforts of the Mineral Regional Office in Nowshera, which has filed over 370 cases against law violators engaged in this mining, the persistent reluctance of habitual violators to vacate the areas of illegal mining remains a significant challenge. These regions – particularly Kahi village near Askari Cement Factory and Jabbi Kuch – have been identified as highly sensitive for the security of the field staff involved in enforcing legal measures. The confrontations have escalated to a point where the enforcement team faces serious threats, including incidents of firing weapons and stoning by the violators during raids. Such hostile reactions further underscore the gravity of the situation, necessitating not only legal action but also heightened security measures to ensure the safety of those tasked with upholding the law and protecting national assets from ongoing exploitation.

Deputy Commissioner Khalid Khattak of Nowshera recently informed the BBC of this extensive illegal gold mining operation in the Nowshera district, and how this practice has escalated since 2022 with the advent of more advanced equipment. Khattak reported that 858 cases have been registered, leading to 825 arrests and the collection of 70 million rupees in fines. Law enforcement has also confiscated 12 excavators, seven vehicles, and 20 motorcycles. However, the enforcement of these laws is challenging due to the remote mining locations and the increased strain on police resources amid a rise in polio cases and the upcoming general elections.

In a troubling turn of events, the chair of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf Parliamentarians (PTI-P), Pervez Khattak, recently sparked controversy by allegedly endorsing the illegal gold mining during a political gathering. Khattak’s speech not only acknowledged the presence of illicit mining activities but shockingly encouraged attendees to participate, asserting that no legal action could be taken against them in his presence. This startling endorsement by a prominent political figure not only raises serious concerns about the rule of law and environmental conservation, but also suggests potential political backing for illegal mining operations.

Flecks of gold from unregulated gold mining on the Indus River in Nowshera, Pakistan. Image courtesy of Sabir Hussain.

Environmental experts have highlighted the immediate and long-term consequences of these activities. The use of heavy machinery not only disturbs the riverbed but also releases harmful pollutants into the water which affects the quality of food for the fish, threatening the delicate balance of the aquatic ecosystem, particularly affecting the life cycle of turtles. These gentle creatures lay their eggs in the sand, carefully covering the nest to protect it from predators.

However, with placer gold mining on the rise, turtle breeding grounds, especially along the Indus River, are at great risk. The consequences of the illegal mining extend beyond environmental damage. The Indus River serves as a crucial water source for agriculture and other domestic purposes, making its protection vital for the well-being of local communities. The continued failure to address this issue could result in threatening the livelihoods of those dependent on the river. Furthermore, there is the looming possibility of diverting the course of the Indus River in Nowshera, an area already susceptible to flooding. Repeated instances of severe flooding in Nowshera have inflicted substantial human casualties, harmed animals, and caused damage to residences. The ongoing disregard for this matter presents an imminent threat to the safety and long-term possibility of the communities residing along the Indus River.

It is crucial to the development for the region’s economy and environmental preservation efforts to regulate placer gold blocks along the Indus River. The move aims to streamline and formalize the extraction of placer gold, ensuring that it contributes to the government exchequer. By introducing regulations and oversight, the government seeks to enhance revenue generation from this valuable resource while concurrently maintaining the delicate biodiversity of the Indus River. Striking a balance between economic interests and environmental conservation is at the forefront of this initiative, reflecting a commitment to sustainable practices in resource management.

Unregulated gold miners employ an estimated 1,200 heavy machines on the Indus River in Nowshera District, Pakistan. Image courtesy of Sabir Hussain.

The regularization process is anticipated to bring transparency and accountability to placer gold extraction, fostering a win-win situation for both economic growth and ecological preservation. The call for urgency is not just an administrative necessity but a resounding demand from a public seeking both economic relief and responsible resource management. Calls are growing for immediate and decisive action from both the local and national government to dismantle the illegal mining operations along the Indus River.

The environmentalists and local residents are demanding a thorough investigation into the alleged collusion between the mafia and local authorities, emphasizing the need for accountability to prevent further degradation of the region’s natural resources. As the situation intensifies, concerned citizens hope that the government will take swift action to put an end to the illegal placer gold mining and protect the Indus River from further harm. The fate of the region’s biodiversity and the well-being of its residents hang in the balance, emphasizing the urgency of addressing this critical issue.


Sabir Hussain is a journalist and editor at Sunrise Today based in Islamabad, which covers science, technology, climate change, environmental issues, energy, public health, education, Afghan refugees and international affairs. Reach out to him on X via @EngSabirHussain or by email, [email protected].  

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Biodiversity, Commentary, Conservation, Ecosystems, Environment, Environmental Law, Freshwater Ecosystems, Gold Mining, Habitat, Habitat Degradation, Habitat Destruction, Habitat Loss, Illegal Mining, Illegal Trade, Law, Law Enforcement, Mining, Regulations, Rivers, Wildlife

Asia, Pakistan, South Asia


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