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Why the world is running out of sand

Geology

Though separated by thousands of miles, these killings share an unlikely cause. They are some of the latest casualties in a growing wave of violence sparked by the struggle for one of the 21st Century’s most important, but least appreciated, commodities: ordinary sand.

Trivial though it may seem, sand is a critical ingredient of our lives. It is the primary raw material that modern cities are made from. The concrete used to construct shopping malls, offices, and apartment blocks, along with the asphalt we use to build roads connecting them, are largely just sand and gravel glued together. The glass in every window, windshield, and smart phone screen is made of melted-down sand. And even the silicon chips inside our phones and computers – along with virtually every other piece of electronic equipment in your home – are made from sand.

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And where is the problem with that, you might ask? Our planet is covered in it. Huge deserts from the Sahara to Arizona have billowing dunes of the stuff. Beaches on coastlines around the world are lined with sand. We can even buy bags of it at our local hardware shop for a fistful of small change.

But believe it or not, the world is facing a shortage of sand. How can we possibly be running low on a substance found in virtually every country on earth and that seems essentially limitless?

Creating the buildings and roads needed for the world’s growing urban population requires vast volumes of sand (Credit: Getty Images)

Sand, however, is the most-consumed natural resource on the planet besides water. People use some 50 billion tonnes of “aggregate” – the industry term for sand and gravel, which tend to be found together – every year. That’s more than enough to blanket the entire United Kingdom.

The problem lies in the type of sand we are using. Desert sand is largely useless to us. The overwhelming bulk of the sand we harvest goes to make concrete, and for that purpose, desert sand grains are the wrong shape. Eroded by wind rather than water, they are too smooth and rounded to lock together to form stable concrete.

We cannot extract 50 billion tonnes per year of any material without leading to massive impacts on the planet and thus on people’s lives – Pascal Peduzzi

The sand we need is the more angular stuff found in the beds, banks, and floodplains of rivers, as well as in lakes and on the seashore. The demand for that material is so intense that around the world, riverbeds and beaches are being stripped bare, and farmlands and forests torn up to get at the precious grains. And in a growing number of countries, criminal gangs have moved in to the trade, spawning an often lethal black market in sand.

“The issue of sand comes as a surprise to many, but it shouldn’t,” says Pascal Peduzzi, a researcher with the United Nations Environment Programme. “We cannot extract 50 billion tonnes per year of any material without leading to massive impacts on the planet and thus on people’s lives.”

The main driver of this crisis is breakneck urbanisation. Every year there are more and more people on the planet, with an ever growing number of them moving from the rural countryside into cities, especially in the developing world. Across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, cities are expanding at a pace and on a scale far greater than any time in human history.

The number of people living in urban areas has more than quadrupled since 1950 to some 4.2 billion today, and the United Nations predicts another 2.5 billion will join them in the next three decades. That’s the equivalent of adding eight cities the size of New York every single year.

Smoothed by the wind, sand in deserts like the Sahara, which cover huge swathes of the planet, do not lock together well in concrete (Credit: Alamy)

Creating buildings to house all those people, along with the roads to knit them together, requires prodigious quantities of sand. In India, the amount of construction sand used annually has more than tripled since 2000, and is still rising fast. China alone has likely used more sand this decade than the United States did in the entire 20th Century. There is so much demand for certain types of construction sand that Dubai, which sits on the edge of an enormous desert, imports sand from Australia. That’s right: exporters in Australia are literally selling sand to Arabs.

But sand isn’t only used for buildings and infrastructure – increasingly, it is also used to manufacture the very land beneath their feet. From California to Hong Kong, ever-larger and more powerful dredging ships vacuum up millions of tonnes of sand from the sea floor each year, piling  it up in coastal areas to create land where there was none before. Dubai’s palm-tree shaped islands are perhaps the most famous artificial land masses that have been built from scratch in recent years, but they have plenty of company.

Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, is adding a 2,400-acre (9.7 sq km) urban extension to its Atlantic shoreline. China, the fourth-largest nation on Earth in terms of naturally occurring land, has added hundreds of miles to its coast, and built entire islands to host luxury resorts.

River sand mining is also contributing to the slow-motion disappearance of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

This new real estate is valuable, but it often incurs steep costs. Ocean dredging has damaged coral reefs in Kenya, the Persian Gulf and Florida. It tears up marine habitat and muddies waters with sand plumes that can affect aquatic life far from the original site. Fishermen in Malaysia and Cambodia have seen their livelihoods decimated by dredging. In China, land reclamation has wiped out coastal wetlands, annihilated habitats for fish and shorebirds, and increased water pollution.

And then there’s Singapore, a world leader in land reclamation. To create more space for its nearly six million residents, the jam-packed city-state has built out its territory with an additional 50 sq miles (130 sq km) of land over the past 40 years, almost all of it with sand imported from other countries. The collateral environmental damage has been so extreme that neighbouring Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia have all restricted exports of sand to Singapore.

All told, according to a Dutch research group, human beings since 1985 have added 5,237 sq miles (13,563 sq km) of artificial land to the world’s coasts – an area about as big as the nation of Jamaica. Most of it built with gargantuan amounts of sand.

Sand is extracted on an industrial scale from rivers, lakes and beaches around the world to meet the global demand (Credit: Getty Images)

Mining sand to use in concrete and other industrial purposes is, if anything, even more destructive. Sand for construction is most often mined from rivers. It’s easy to pull the grains up with suction pumps or even buckets, and easy to transport once you’ve got a full boatload. But dredging a riverbed can destroy the habitat occupied by bottom-dwelling organisms. The churned-up sediment can cloud the water, suffocating fish and blocking the sunlight that sustains underwater vegetation.

River sand mining is also contributing to the slow-motion disappearance of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The area is home to 20 million people and source of half of all the country’s food and much of the rice that feeds the rest of South East Asia. Climate-change-induced sea level rise is one reason the delta is losing the equivalent of one and a half football fields of land every day. But another, researchers believe, is that people are robbing the delta of its sand.

For centuries, the delta has been replenished by sediment carried down from the mountains of Central Asia by the Mekong River. But in recent years, in each of the several countries along its course, miners have begun pulling huge quantities of sand from the riverbed. According to a 2013 study by three French researchers, some 50 million tonnes of sand were extracted in 2011 alone – enough to cover the city of Denver two inches deep. Meanwhile, five major dams have been built in recent years on the Mekong and another 12 are slated for construction in China, Laos, and Cambodia. The dams further diminish the flow of sediment to the delta.

In other words, while natural erosion of the delta continues, its natural replenishment does not. Researchers with the Greater Mekong Programme at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) believe that at this rate, nearly half the delta will be wiped out by the end of this century.

Extracting sand from quarries along river banks in places like Sri Lanka is back-breaking work (Credit: Getty Images)

To make matters worse, dredging the Mekong and other waterways in Cambodia and Laos is causing river banks to collapse, dragging down crop fields and even houses. Farmers in Myanmar say the same thing is happening along the Ayeyarwady River.

Sand extraction from rivers has also caused untold millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure around the world. The stirred-up sediment clogs water supply equipment. And removing all that material from river banks leaves the foundations of bridges exposed and unsupported. In Ghana, sand miners have dug up so much ground that they have dangerously exposed the foundations of hillside buildings, which are at risk of collapse. That’s not just a theoretical risk. Sand mining caused a bridge to collapse in Taiwan in 2000, and another the following year in Portugal just as a bus was passing over it, killing 70 people.

The competition for sand has grown so intense that in many places criminal gangs have gotten into the trade

Demand for high-purity silica sands, which are used to make glass as well as high-tech products like solar panels and computer chips, is also soaring. America’s surging fracking industry also needs the extra-durable high-purity grains. The result: acres of farmlands and forests in rural Wisconsin, which happens to have a lot of those precious sands, are being torn up.

The competition for sand has grown so intense that in many places criminal gangs have gotten into the trade, digging grains up by the megatonne to sell on the black market. In parts of Latin America and Africa, according to human rights groups, children are forced to work as virtual slaves in sand mines. The gangs get away with all this the same way organised crime does everywhere – by paying off corrupt police and government officials to leave them alone. And, when they deem it necessary, by assaulting and even killing those who get in their way.

Criminal gangs have found that illegally extracting sand from beaches or quarries and selling it on the black market is a lucrative business (Credit: Getty Images)

José Luis Álvarez Flores, an environmental activist in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas who campaigned against illegal sand mining in a local river, was shot dead in June. A note threatening his family and other activists was reportedly found with his body. Two months later, police in Rajasthan, India, were shot at when they tried to stop a convoy of tractors carrying illegally mined sand. The ensuing gun battle left two miners dead and two police officers hospitalised. And early this year, a sand miner in South Africa was shot seven times in a dispute with another group of miners.

Those are only the latest casualties. Violence over the sand trade in recent years has taken lives in Kenya, Gambia, and Indonesia. In India, “sand mafias”, as the local press calls them, have injured hundreds and killed dozens of people. The victims include an 81-year-old teacher and a 22-year-old activist who were separately hacked to death, a journalist burned to death, and at least three police officers run over by sand trucks.

Awareness of the damage caused by our addiction to sand is growing. A number of scientists are working on ways to replace sand in concrete with other materials, including fly ash, the material left over by coal-fired power stations; shredded plastic; and even crushed oil palm shells and rice husks. Others are developing concrete that requires less sand, while researchers are also looking at more effective ways to grind down and recycle concrete.

In many Western countries, river sand mining has already been largely phased out. Getting the rest of the world to follow suit will be tough, though. “Preventing or reducing likely damage to rivers will require the construction industry to be weaned off river sourced aggregate,” says a recent report on the global sand industry by WWF. “This type of societal shift is similar to that required to address climate change, and will necessitate changes in the way that sand and river are perceived, and cities are designed and constructed.”

Sand-covered beaches are often depicted as paradise, but in some parts of the world they are being dug up and sold by the tonne (Credit: Alamy)

Mette Bendixen, a coastal geographer at the University of Colorado, is one of a growing number of academics calling for the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, to do more to limit the damage caused by sand mining. “We should have a monitoring programme,” says Bendixen. “More management is needed because right now it’s not being managed at all.”

At present, no one even knows exactly how much sand is being pulled out of the earth, nor where, nor under what conditions. Much of it is undocumented. “We just know,” says Bendixen, “that the more people there are, the more sand we need.”

BBC



77 Comments on "Why the world is running out of sand"

  1. claes on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 6:40 pm 

    Mak, you are not completely rigth about this: “The only thing the US is really #1 at is brainwashing propaganda,”
    Why then are some predicting civil war in US if not some body are thinking different.
    Seems to me that brainwashing doesn’t work to a hundred percent in the US.
    If SHTF there will be a lot sheeps losing their lives and some few foxes will survive in their lairs (that will be you and davy)

  2. makati1 on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 7:05 pm 

    Nothing is 100% but those who see reality are leaving, if possible. Thousands every year and more than 8 million Amerikans live in foreign countries today, not counting military. 200,000+ live here in the Philippines.

    I’m not sure about Davy, but I am going to “survive” quite well here on our farm, far from any city or large town. We are preparing for the coming events as much as possible. They will not be quite as painful here, where people are still self-reliant and independent. We have good neighbors, a chicken ranch and a piggery nearby, not to mention a fishing port. I’m not worried. the pain should be mostly in the Western countries.

  3. claes on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 7:15 pm 

    There are even people predicting civil war in china if their government can’t deliver on steady growth. That of course is not likely but it is still possible.
    My own belief is that the control of the individuals in china are so strict that a rebellion is nearly impossible.
    If SHTF then China is the most likely culture to survive it.
    Unless of course their powerlines arn’t protected against EMP, in wich case they are basically toasted, just like the USA.

  4. makati1 on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 7:43 pm 

    claes, I agree that China has a very good chance of riding out the SHTF event with minor problems. It is an ancient culture used to hardships.

    I see Russia also riding it out with minimal pain. They have the resources to be totally independent of the rest of the world.

    Here in the Philippines, there is still a culture of resilience. Many don’t have electric or even in-house water. Our farm neighbors got electric when we paid to run a power line 1/2 mile to the farm, that they could hook into. They still do not have in-house water, just springs. Many here will hardly notice the change. Yes, many who live and work in the cities will have to go home to their families in the countryside, but they do that on weekends anyway. The millions who are here to work or go to school, will go back to their home countries. Interesting times ahead.

  5. Duncan Idaho on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 7:53 pm 

    Hint:
    We have 7.7 billion people on a planet with a collapsing ecosystem.
    Our normal population of our 200,000 year history is 1-10 million, with a near extinction about 70,000 years ago.

    Is anyone paying attention?

  6. makati1 on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 8:08 pm 

    No one cares, Duncan. Many of those who know have too much $$$ involved in BAU to want to give it up. Others who know, have no way to do anything about it, myself included. Most have no idea it is happening, as the info is suppressed by the same ones who gain by keeping BAU, or are not able to access the facts.

    Here in the Philippines most, outside of the cities, have no internet. Most have simple cell phones, if any. Many do have TV but that programming is by the same $$$ BAU folks as above. Survival day to day takes all their efforts and energy on most days. And, the Catholic Church makes family planning/ birth control difficult here, although I have noticed more and more places sell condoms then when I came here 12 years ago.

  7. claes on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 8:12 pm 

    Duncan, Gretha Thunberg is paying a lot of attention if your country is based on western civilization.
    If your country is poor, non white or communistic then she is not paying attention.
    Except from that we all are paying attention, but we just don’t know what to do

  8. claes on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 8:23 pm 

    Duncan, go tell it to al the poor people in this world, that get way too many children that they can’t provide for…. that is if you dare say it… they are not gonna love you

  9. Cloggie on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 8:54 pm 

    “If it’s a Boeing, I’m not going”-latest.
    Now it’s the B777:

    https://www.spiegel.de/panorama/gesellschaft/los-angeles-boeing-777-mit-brennendem-triebwerk-muss-notlanden-a-1297688.html

    Mobile phones and social media, a deadly combination for “Seattle”. Engine gets on fire, shortly after take-off.

    The pictures from twitter…

  10. claes on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 8:56 pm 

    Mak,we gotta come upp with a better answer to these young people that has a problem with overpopulation. I’m also pretty old, but trying to to act a little younger.
    What can we tell them that is both true and positive, whit out sounding old and bitter.

  11. Cloggie on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 8:58 pm 

    To be fair to Boeing… it was Philipines Airlines operating the machine. A machine can only be as good as it is maintained.

  12. claes on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 9:05 pm 

    Shut upp cloggie, you are poluting the stratosphere. Tell us instead what to say to a yougster that thinks we are too many on the planet

  13. Cloggie on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 9:27 pm 

    “Shut upp cloggie, you are poluting the stratosphere.“

    ???

    “Tell us instead what to say to a yougster that thinks we are too many on the planet”

    Get yourself a kalashnikov and go on a rampage, Rambo-style and become a headline and from then on post from the slammer on a smuggled-in 2nd-hand cheap mobile phone.

  14. claes on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 9:51 pm 

    Solutions to overpopulation

    1: reintroducing child mortality
    2: Free contraception
    3: Let the woman decide her own pregnancy
    4: Don’t help severily damaged children
    5: Stop vaccinating children
    6: Stop using resources on prematures

    These methods are called EUGENETICS, and they are widely unpopular in most academic circles, but we’ll have to face it sooner or later

  15. claes on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 10:06 pm 

    what I call eugenetics is actually natures own way of keeping a species sound and fresh. We so called develloped people have got it in our powers to circumvent natures own selective mechanisms. But in the long run this will only hurt our selves. This is ecology on a human basis.

  16. makati1 on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 11:16 pm 

    claes, that is a great question and it made me think about the problem from that viewpoint.

    I tell my grand kids to forget college and learn a trade/skill that will be useful when the SHTF. I don’t see there ever not being a need for skilled carpenters, plumbers, electricians, nurses, doctors, etc. All are necessary in the future, no matter what happens, and none can be easily replaced by robots.

    My step-sister went back to college at age 46 to get a nursing degree, and she had four kids to also take care of. Now she is a registered nurse. She cashed out her 401k to do it, but never regretted the move. What is numbers in a retirement plan destined to fail when you can learn a skill that will pay as long as you live?

    As for population, I tell them to plan their family so that they can survive. One kid is plenty, or adopt if they want more. But, I believe that it is too late to voluntarily do anything to prevent the inevitable future where resource limits meet consumption needs and the population declines quickly, one way or another.

  17. makati1 on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 11:21 pm 

    claes, yes, we prevent, or try to, nature’s culling of the herd. That is why we have so many retarded, disfigured, weak humans taking down the rest of the herd. Nature provides lions and wolves to do that in the natural world. We kill off the predators called disease and genetic mutation. We will pay for that soon.

  18. claes on Thu, 21st Nov 2019 11:40 pm 

    Mak,thanks for not calling me al kind of names.
    Not so long ago I happened to se a picture of two folded hands saying: “Lord, please forgive me, for I’m about to post what I actually think.”
    I guess humanity soon will have yo decide whether it is a pest on earth or it is a part of the ecology. Sleep tight

  19. Davy on Fri, 22nd Nov 2019 12:04 am 

    claes. We all know your JuanP.

    I thought I’d point that out to prove how smart us Ozarks hillbillies really are.

    Were real smart.

  20. Davy on Fri, 22nd Nov 2019 12:12 am 

    BTW juanpee stupid. We have all kinds of bombs and stuff to kill y’all with. That makes us way smarter then you.

    dumbass

  21. Eugenics for the 21st Century on Fri, 22nd Nov 2019 12:29 am 

    The only recommendation I have is to forcibly sterilize undesirable populations (families on the dole who continue to produce children, Gypsies, low IQ).

    These recs. MUST be introduced immediately if there is to be any chance.

  22. makati1 on Fri, 22nd Nov 2019 1:11 am 

    claes, I don’t abuse people on here like some do. I can hold a rational discussion if both sides are willing to have an open mind. I don’t have to agree with you nor you with me to look at the other’s viewpoint.

    It is 3:10PM here in the Philippines on a rainy Friday. the temp is currently 80F. It is the rainy season so we get many days like this for 3-4 months.

  23. Davy on Fri, 22nd Nov 2019 1:55 am 

    “smuggled-in 2nd-hand cheap mobile phone”

    I know some guys who showed me how to smuggle phones into the slammer by carefully inserting them inside the rectum. They first use an over-sized dildo (ebony) to stretch the anal cavity.

    Anyone scheduled for prison should give this a go. I have posted detailed instructions on REAL Green including a how to video using my rectum as the test case, although to be fair I have had quite a bit of practice via Humper Pumper #9 Glory Hole insertion (ebony).

  24. supremacist muzzies jerk on Fri, 22nd Nov 2019 3:56 am 

    supertard SAW SAWS pbuh swt REAL Green Goat you losing cool lately. please go play with the goats at OldMacDonaldHadAFarm.com and auto keltecs

    brief cornholing or brisk cornhusking does REAL Green Goat miracles

  25. Richard Guenette on Sun, 24th Nov 2019 4:48 pm 

    We are not running out of sand. Look at the Sahara (It is the world’s largest desert).

  26. Massbytes on Sun, 24th Nov 2019 10:45 pm 

    You might read the article to find out why having the Sahara doesn’t matter.

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