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The Global Sand Shortage: An Unexpected Crisis

by Luna Radonjanin

“Have you never seen a beach… or a desert?” is the immediate response of anyone who hears the phrase “global sand shortage” for the first time.

As the phrase suggests, the world is severely lacking a key raw material: sand. A BBC article reporting on the crisis states that sand “is the most-consumed natural resource on the planet beside water.” Yet, 33% of the earth’s land surface is desert and there are beaches everywhere, so how can the world be missing something it apparently has in abundance?

In an attempt to explain this seemingly bizarre topic, we must start from the beginning.

Where Does the Sand Go?

The core reason for the depletion of sand and gravel is construction. For this purpose, it is mainly used to produce two crucial materials–concrete and glass–while the raw material is also used for the production of asphalt, silicon chips, and solar panels.

According to numbers from the UN, cement production has reached an estimated 4.1 billion tons per year. Comparatively, the use of sand in construction is around ten times this amount, standing at a surprising 40 to 50 billion tons per year — an amount which cannot be replenished at the rate at which it is being used and enough to cover the United Kingdom completely.

From 1950 till 2018, the number of people that live in urban areas has increased from 751 million to 4.2 billion, with a projected 2.5 billion to follow by 2050. As more areas are being urbanized, the increased level of building and street construction threatens the seemingly endless resource.

Not All Sand is the Same

Beyond the excessive use of sand, not all sand can be used for construction. The texture of material is one of the most important factors in choosing sand to use for construction. The most abundant sources, desert and sea sand, generally can not be used due to their smoothness and high chloride content, respectively. Sand used for construction is extracted from quarries, rivers, lakes, and shorelines.

Source: Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade

Regulating the Resource: The Human Cost of Illegal Sand Mining

Despite the growing demand for supply of sand, regulating sand use has become an increasingly complicated issue. Journalist Vince Beiser speaking to NPR West warns, “There is so much demand for sand right now that we are stripping riverbeds bare. We’re stripping beaches bare. We’re tearing up forests and farmland to get at the sand.”

Sand has mainly been considered a common pool resource, meaning it is a resource that anyone can use, but now as urgency in light of the sand demand is increasing and regulations are being placed on the use of this resource all over the world, which presents another problem: illegal sand mining.

The high demand for sand has caused criminal gangs, referred to as “sand mafias,” to mine for sand and sell it on the black market. They do this by bribing police and government officials to turn a blind eye and even resorting to assault and killing of anyone who attempts to stop them. These actions have resulted in casualties and injuries of activists, journalists, and police officers in Kenya, Gambia, Indonesia, India among other countries.

The Environmental Costs

Even if not done illegally, sand mining leads to habitat destruction, death of fish and underwater vegetation, river and beach erosion, as well as infrastructure damage. Collapsing river banks have pulled crop fields and houses together with them, leaving people homeless.

Source: The Phnom Penh Post (Houses in Kandal province, Cambodia damaged by a collapsed riverbank in 2021)

What’s Next?

The real first step to mitigating the global sand crisis is realizing that this issue is not a party joke, but instead a complex problem that will continue to have devastating effects unless it is somehow controlled. In 2019, an UN resolution recognized the global sand shortage as an environmental crisis and urged governments to begin searching for solutions.

Riverbed and beach mining must be stopped in order to counter the violence and destruction it causes. Regulations must continue to be placed on sand mining and alternatives to these destructive mining processes must be found. One such alternative practice which is less destructive than mining is rock crushing, as it mitigates habitat destruction and illegal mining. Unfortunately, this process creates lower quality sand in addition to being a more expensive process.

Yet, the main issue in addressing this problem worldwide continues to be that, in the words of UNEP climate scientist Pascal Peduzzi, “countries are pondering between development needs and the protection of the environment.” Though, in the face of overpopulation, climate change, constant environmental destruction, and multiple resource shortages, it is clear that we have lost the luxury to view development needs and environmental protection as two separate issues and must act now.

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