Skyrocketing demand, combined with unfettered mining to meet it, is creating the perfect recipe for shortages
The world is facing a global sand crisis
When people picture sand spread across idyllic beaches and endless deserts, they understandably think of it as an infinite resource. But a newly-published report in the journal Science says over-exploitation of global supplies of sand is damaging the environment, endangering communities, causing shortages and promoting violent conflict.
Skyrocketing demand, combined with unfettered mining to meet it, is creating the perfect recipe for shortages. Plentiful evidence strongly suggests that sand is becoming increasingly scarce in many regions. For example, in Vietnam domestic demand for sand exceeds the country’s total reserves. If this mismatch continues, the country may run out of construction sand by 2020, according to recent statements from the country’s ministry of construction.
This problem is rarely mentioned in scientific discussions and has not been systemically studied. While scientists are making a great effort to quantify how infrastructure systems such as roads and buildings affect the habitats that surround them, the impacts of extracting construction minerals such as sand and gravel to build those structures have been overlooked. Scientists now believe it is time to develop international conventions to regulate sand mining, use and trade.
Sand and gravel are now the most-extracted materials in the world, exceeding fossil fuels and biomass (measured by weight). Sand is a key ingredient for concrete, roads, glass and electronics. Massive amounts of sand are mined for land reclamation projects, shale gas extraction and beach renourishment programmes. Recent floods in Houston, India, Nepal and Bangladesh will add to growing global demand for sand.
In 2010, about 11 billion tonnes of sand were mined just for construction. Extraction rates were highest in the Asia-Pacific region, followed by Europe and North America. In the United States alone, production and use of construction sand and gravel was valued at US$8.9 billion (Dh32.69 billion) in 2016, and production has increased by 24 per cent in the past five years.
But those numbers might be an underestimate of global sand extraction and use, due to uneven record-keeping in many countries. Official statistics widely under-report sand use and typically do not include non-construction purposes such as hydraulic fracturing and replenishing beaches.
Sand traditionally has been a local product. However, regional shortages and bans on sand mining in some countries are turning it into a globalised commodity. Its international trade value has skyrocketed, increasing almost six-fold in the last 25 years.
Profits from sand mining frequently spur profiteering. In the early years of the 20th century in Hong Kong, competition for sand was so fierce that it descended into violence, forcing the government to turn sand mining and trading into a state monopoly. It lasted until 1981.
Today organised crime groups in India, Italy and elsewhere conduct illegal trade in soil and sand. Singapore’s high-volume sand imports have been the cause of disputes with Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia.
Sand mining harms humans and the environment
It is the poorer regions that feel the negative consequences of overexploiting sand. Extensive sand extraction physically alters rivers and coastal ecosystems, increases suspended sediments and causes erosion.
Research shows that sand mining operations are affecting numerous animal species, including fish, dolphins, crustaceans and crocodiles. For example, the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) — a critically endangered crocodile found in Asian river systems — is increasingly threatened by sand mining, which destroys or erodes sand banks where the animals bask.
Sand mining also has a serious effect on people’s livelihoods. Beaches and wetlands buffer coastal communities against surging seas. Increased erosion resulting from extensive mining makes these communities more vulnerable to floods and storm surges.
A recent report by the Water Integrity Network found that sand mining exacerbated the impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Sri Lanka. In the Mekong Delta, sand mining is reducing sediment supplies as drastically as dam construction, threatening the sustainability of the delta. It also is probably enhancing saltwater intrusion during the dry season, which threatens water and food security for local communities.
Sand extraction create new standing pools of water that can become breeding sites for malaria-carrying mosquitoes and also play an important role in the spread of emerging diseases such as Buruli ulce, a bacterial skin infection, in West Africa.
Preventing a tragedy of the sand commons
The scale of the problem is not widely appreciated. Despite huge demand, sand sustainability is rarely addressed in scientific research and policy forums. And as sand is a common-pool resource — open to all, easy to get and hard to regulate — the true global costs of sand mining and usage are little known. Major international agreements such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Convention on Biological Diversity promote responsible allocation of natural resources, but there are no international conventions to regulate sand extraction, use and trade.
Demand will increase further as urban areas continue to expand and sea levels rise. But researches say it is time to treat sand like a resource, on a par with clean air, biodiversity and other natural endowments that nations seek to manage for the future.