Listen to this story
“It is to cities what flour is to bread, what cells are to our bodies: the invisible but fundamental ingredient that makes up the bulk of the built environment in which most of us live.“
— Vince Beiser, author of “The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization”
Think of a valuable resource. What images come into your mind’s eye? Maybe oil? Water? Perhaps you looked at a ring on your finger and thought of gold. All of these are valuable resources, it’s true.
Now, what if I told you sand was also an incredibly rare and precious resource? It may sound absurd, especially if you’ve been anywhere near a beach or desert lately, but the world is running out of sand. A crucial material in everything from cellphones to high-rises, the resource is being used up faster than it can replenish itself, sparking environmental concerns and community conflicts. Some are even willing to kill for it.
You may not realize it, but nearly everything around you is built with sand. The concrete your apartment, condo, or house is made out of was mixed with sand. The glass windows you look through to see what the weather looks like — those were made with sand as well. The cellphone or computer you’re reading this on — the silicon chips in them are made with sand. The road you travel on to work — sand as well. If you live in any kind of urban setting, it is constructed with sand.
Sand Isn’t as Plentiful as You Think
You may be thinking: But sand is everywhere, there are whole deserts filled with the stuff.
The sand in a desert, though, is useless as a construction material. The grains are out in the open and blow around for thousands of years. This rounds them off until they become useless as building blocks. Imagine trying to make a building with golf balls. In order to build, sand with angular edges must be used. The preferential type is the kind found in a river bed, sea, or beach.
The fact that desert sand is useless makes for some unexpected situations. Despite being surrounded by endless miles of sand, the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, was built with sand imported from Australia. Dubai also imports sand for its beaches from Australia. Apparently desert sand doesn’t do well in a beach atmosphere either.
Sand also regenerates slowly. It takes thousands upon thousands of years for rock and sediment to break down into the usable grains we all rely on.
Construction’s Endless Appetite for Sand
The world has seen a construction boom in recent years. The base that boom is built on, quite literally, is concrete. The United Nations estimates that the world consumes more than 40 billion tons of building aggregate — sand, gravel, and crushed stone — each year. Some estimates predict consumption will top 50 billion tons by next year, with China alone gobbling up much of the world’s concrete supply as it undergoes a massive urbanization. According to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, between 2011 and 2013 China used more concrete than the U.S. used throughout the entire 20th century. Other parts of Asia, such as India, are rapidly expanding as well.
The urbanization driving this construction boom, and increasing reliance on concrete, shows no signs of slowing. By 2030 the U.N. expects 60 percent of the world’s population to live in urban areas.
“Sand mafias” are groups of criminals that illegally dredge sand from areas where extraction is prohibited.
Sand is also used for reclamation projects — reclaiming land from the sea. Singapore is probably the most extreme example. Since 1960, the country has expanded its landmass from 581.5 to 721.5 square kilometers. By some estimates, reclaiming one square kilometer requires up to 37.5 million cubic meters of sand. In an effort to accommodate a growing population and rising sea levels, Singapore plans to add another 40 square kilometers by 2030, though officials say they are turning to methods that will reduce the need for imported sand.
The Sand Business Attracts the Criminal Underworld
One of the prime issues with sand is that it’s heavy. Heavy items incur large transportation costs, especially over a long distance. The scarcity and high prices attract the attention of criminals. Why go to a legal mining area when sand can be extracted for next to nothing elsewhere?
“Sand mafias” are groups of criminals that illegally dredge sand from areas where extraction is prohibited. Since they’re not following laws, all environmental protocols are ignored. Often rivers are illegally mined, destroying the habitat for fish and fishermen. Sometimes land from private villages is even taken over by these mafias.
If they’re confronted, violence often results. And according to a 2015 Wired story on sand mafias in India, police are typically of little help: “The conventional wisdom says that many local authorities accept bribes from the sand miners to stay out of their business — and not infrequently, are involved in the business themselves.”
This problem is particularly rampant in India. A number of murders have allegedly been committed by these sand mafias to keep journalists and agitators quiet. In a recent murder, journalist Sandeep Sharma was run over by a truck after he secretly filmed a police official agreeing to a bribe in exchange for allowing sand mining in a crocodile sanctuary. According to the editor of the local television channel where Sharma worked, he was denied police protection after receiving threats. The editor also told the Guardian that police confiscated Sharma’s camera with footage of the bribe agreement and never gave it back.
In another murder in 2013, Paleram Chauhan was shot multiple times by masked assailants in his own bedroom. According to Wired, his family is certain they know who the killers are. About 10 years prior, as India’s building boom got underway, a sand mafia had arrived at Chauhan’s village. The mafia seized 200 acres of communal land, tore up the topsoil, and started digging up the sand. Though it is illegal to steal a village’s land, not to mention sand mining is banned in the area due to a nearby bird sanctuary, local authorities did nothing when Chauhan approached them for help.
Chauhan kept up the pressure though, and eventually, one of the members of this mafia was put in jail, then quickly released. As Chauhan’s son told the Australian news show Foreign Correspondent, this member threatened Chauhan after his release, telling him to back down or his family would be killed. A week later, Chauhan was killed.
The head of this sand mafia and his sons were arrested for the murder, but released on bail. When the Australian reporting team visited Chauhan’s son last year, they found the man who allegedly threatened his father still mining in the village.
These are only a couple of the murders that have been committed in pursuit of yellow grains. People are actually killing each other for sand.
Are We Doomed to Run Out of Sand?
You might be feeling depressed right about now. The world is going to run out of sand, there will be chaos in the streets, and sand mafias will kick down your front door to steal your kid’s sandbox.
Alright, I’m making light of a potentially terrible situation. But the world has encountered terrible situations before and managed to pull through. Early 1800s economists explored a theory called the law of diminishing returns in an attempt to explain why grain prices were falling. In the classic example of this theory, Thomas Malthus used a field of land and a farmer. As the farmer adds more labor to the field, he gets improved output, but only to a degree. Eventually, his returns diminish as he adds more and more labor.
Many looked at this theory and concluded that humanity would inevitably starve to death. As the population increased, food production wouldn’t keep up. It is now widely recognized, though, that Malthus missed something critical — technology.
Just as criminal cockroaches will crawl out from under rocks to terrorize villagers and take their sand for a profit, this demand and scarcity will call for innovation.
Technology can greatly offset this law of diminishing returns by increasing productivity. Through today’s technology, areas of the world that have always been net importers of food are becoming net exporters. Hybrid seeds, fertilizers, farming techniques, and pesticides have fought back the diminished returns from a plot of land and increased yields to levels previously thought impossible.
Just as criminal cockroaches will crawl out from under rocks to terrorize villagers and take their sand for a profit, this demand and scarcity will call for innovation. Brilliant minds in search of riches and problems to solve will find solutions. In fact, a possible solution may have already come about. Four college students in England have developed a material called Finite, a concrete alternative made of desert sand. It’s as strong as residential concrete and capable of being melted down and recycled. It is just a prototype currently, but it looks promising.
Sand is definitely a perishable resource. If humanity continues to use it at its current pace, the world’s supply will likely be depleted. However, the situation is far from hopeless. Technology has been used in multiple industries to change predicted ends to various other resources — sand shouldn’t be any different.
If efforts were taken to use sand more efficiently in building, this would be a major first step to progress. In addition, the use of technology to find sand substitutes would be another game changer. Just from a quick internet search, it appears that a number of concrete substitutes are already pushing forward to fill this need.
Sand may be a limited resource, but the human mind is only limited by its imagination. I have a feeling technology and perseverance will find a way to solve this problem.