Why the sand in the world is about to dry up

In September 2019, a South African entrepreneur was shot. In August, two Indian villagers died in a gun battle. In June, a Mexican environmentalist was murdered. Despite being thousands of miles apart, they are all the latest victims of a growing wave of violence. The cause is one of the most important but least concerned commodities in the 21st century: ordinary sand.

Sand may seem insignificant, but it is an important part of our lives. It is the main raw material of modern cities. The concrete used to build shopping malls, office buildings and apartment buildings, and the asphalt we use to build roads are basically made of sand and gravel. Every window, windshield and glass on the screen of a smartphone are made of melted sand. Even the silicon chips in our phones and computers, and almost all other electronic devices in our homes, are made of sand.

Our planet is covered with sand. There are rolling sand dunes from the Sahara to the Arizona desert. Beaches on coastlines around the world are lined with sand. We can even buy a few bags of sand at a local hardware store for a small change. But believe it or not, the world is facing a shortage of sand. In addition to water, sand is the most consumed natural resource on earth. Every year, humans use about 50 billion tons of “aggregate” (the industry term for “sand and gravel”), which is enough to cover the entire UK.

The problem is the type of sand we use. The sand in the desert is basically useless to us. Most of the sand we harvest is used to make concrete, so the shape of the desert sand is wrong. Because of the erosion of wind rather than water, they are too smooth and round to form a stable concrete.

The sand we need is the angular thing found in riverbeds, banks and floodplains, lakes and waterfronts. The demand for this material is so great that people around the world peel open river beds and beaches, tear up farmland and forests, and obtain precious sand. In an increasing number of countries, criminal gangs have begun to get involved in this industry, spawning a deadly black sand market.

Urbanization exacerbates the sand problem
Pascal Peduzi, a researcher at the United Nations Environment Programme, said: “The sand problem has surprised many people, but it shouldn’t be. If we don’t have a huge impact on the planet and on people’s lives, we can’t extract 50 billion tons of any substance every year. ”

The main driver of this crisis is dangerous urbanization. Every year more and more people on the planet move from rural areas to cities, especially in developing countries. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, cities are expanding at an unprecedented speed and scale in human history.

Since 1950, the population living in urban areas has more than tripled and is currently about 4.2 billion people. The United Nations predicts that in the next 30 years, 2.5 billion people will join the ranks of the urban population. This is equivalent to adding 8 New York-sized cities each year.

Building a building to accommodate all these people and building roads that weave them together require a lot of sand. In India, since 2000, the amount of construction sand and gravel used each year has more than tripled and is still growing rapidly. Throughout the decade, China alone may have used more sand than the United States used throughout the 20th century. Demand for certain types of construction sand and gravel is so great that Dubai on the edge of a huge desert has to import sand and gravel from Australia, so Australian exporters are actually selling sand to the Arabs.

However, sand is not only used in buildings and infrastructure, but also more and more is used to make the land underfoot. From California to Hong Kong, increasingly larger and more powerful dredgers suck up millions of tons of sand from the sea floor every year and accumulate them in coastal areas to build land that was not previously available. The Palm Island of Dubai may be the most famous man-made land built from scratch in recent years, but they have many companions.

Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, is adding 9.7 square kilometers of urban expansion to its Atlantic coastline. China is the country with the fourth largest land area on the planet. It has added hundreds of miles to its coastline and built entire islands to accommodate luxury resorts.

The high price paid by sand digging
This new real estate is valuable, but it often comes at a high price. Ocean dredging (sand digging) has damaged coral reefs in Kenya, the Persian Gulf and Florida. It destroys marine habitats and makes the waters with dust plumes turbid, which affects aquatic life away from the original site. Fishermen in Malaysia and Cambodia found that their livelihoods were lost due to dredging (sand digging). In China, land reclamation destroyed coastal wetlands, destroyed fish and waterbird habitats, and exacerbated water pollution.

There is also Singapore, which is a world leader in land reclamation. In order to create more space for nearly 6 million inhabitants, this overcrowded city-state has added 130 square kilometers of land in the past 40 years. Almost all the land is paved with sand imported from other countries. The incidental environmental damage is so severe that neighboring countries Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia have restricted the export of sand to Singapore.

According to statistics from a research team in the Netherlands, since 1985, mankind has added 13,563 square kilometers of man-made land to the world’s coastal areas, an area equivalent to Jamaica’s land area. Most are built with a lot of sand.

Sand mining for concrete and other industrial purposes is more destructive. Construction sand is usually mined from rivers. It is easy to pull up the sand with a suction pump or even a bucket, and it is easy to transport once it is fully loaded. However, dredging the riverbed will destroy the habitat occupied by benthic organisms. The agitated mud will make the water turbid, suffocate the fish, and block the sunlight needed to maintain the growth of underwater vegetation.

River sand mining also led to the slow disappearance of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The region is home to a population of 20 million people, is the source of half of the country’s food, and also supplies most of the rice in other parts of Southeast Asia. Sea level rise caused by climate change is one of the reasons for the daily loss of the delta equivalent to one and a half football fields. But researchers believe that another reason is that people are looting the delta sand.

For centuries, the Mekong River brought mud from the mountains of Central Asia to supplement the delta. But in recent years, in various countries along the way, miners have begun to pull a lot of sand from the river bed. According to a study conducted by three French researchers in 2013, these miners produced about 50 million tons of sand in 2011 alone, enough to cover the city of Denver 5 cm deep. At the same time, in recent years, five large dams have been built on the Mekong River, and plans to build another 12 dams in China, Laos and Cambodia. The dam further reduced the sediment flow to the delta.

In other words, although the natural erosion of the delta continues, its natural replenishment has not continued. Researchers of the WWF “Greater Mekong Project” believe that at this rate, nearly half of the delta will disappear by the end of the century.

To make matters worse, in Cambodia and Laos, dredging the Mekong and other watercourses is causing the banks to collapse, destroying farmland and even houses. Myanmar farmers disclosed that the same thing happened along the Irrawaddy River.

Sand mining from rivers has also caused millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure around the world. The stirred up sand blocked the water supply equipment. By digging all these materials away from the river bank, the foundation of the bridge will be exposed and cannot be supported. In Ghana, sand miners dug too much ground, exposing the foundations of buildings on hillsides to danger, and there is always the risk of collapse. Not just theoretical risks. In 2000, a bridge in Taiwan collapsed due to sand mining. The following year, a bridge in Portugal collapsed just as a bus passed by, killing 70 people.

The darkness and sin behind the sand
The demand for high-purity silica sand is also surging. Silica sand is used to make glass and high-tech products such as solar panels and computer chips. The booming “hydraulic fracturing industry” (natural gas mining) in the United States also requires ultra-durable high-purity silica sand. This resulted in the destruction of large areas of farmland and forests in rural Wisconsin, which happened to have a lot of precious sand.

The competition for sand has become so fierce that in many places, criminal gangs have begun to get involved in this industry, and the dug sand grains are sold on the black market. According to human rights organizations, in parts of Latin America and Africa, children are forced to serve as slaves in bunkers. These criminal gangs, like organized crime elsewhere, evade punishment by bribing corrupt police and government officials. When they think it is necessary, they will attack or even kill those who hinder their movement.

Jose Luis Alvarez Flores, an environmental activist in Chiapas in southern Mexico, was shot dead for opposing illegal sand mining in a local river. According to reports, notes threatening his family and other environmental activists were found in his body. Two months later, police in Rajasthan, India, were shot while trying to stop a tractor carrying illegally mined sand. The subsequent shootout killed two miners and two policemen were admitted to hospital. Earlier this year, a sand miner in South Africa was shot seven times in a dispute with another group of miners.

These are just the latest casualties. In recent years, violence in the sand trade has claimed many lives in Kenya, Gambia and Indonesia. In India, local media called them “Sand Mafia”, causing hundreds of injuries and dozens of deaths. The victims included an 81-year-old teacher and a 22-year-old activist, who were hacked to death, a journalist was burned to death, and at least three police officers were killed by sand trucks.

People are becoming more aware of the hazards caused by their dependence on sand. Many scientists are studying ways to replace sand in concrete with other materials, including fly ash left by coal power plants, plastic fragments, and even crushed oil palm husks and rice husks. Some other companies are developing concrete that requires less sand, and researchers are also looking for more effective ways to grind and recycle concrete.

In many western countries, river sand mining has been basically eliminated. However, it will be difficult for other countries in the world to follow suit. A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on the global sand industry stated: “In order to prevent or reduce possible damage to rivers, the construction industry must stop using river source aggregates. This type of social transformation and climate response The similar social changes required for change will force people to change their perception of sand and rivers, and change the design and construction of cities.”

Met Bendixon, a coastal geographer at the University of Colorado, is one of more and more scholars calling on the United Nations and the World Trade Organization to take more measures to limit the damage caused by sand mining. “We should have a monitoring plan,” Bendixen said. “More management is needed because it is not managed at all.”

At present, no one even knows exactly how much sand is being dug out of the ground, nor does anyone know where and under what conditions, most of it is illegal. Bendixon said, “The more people we know, the more sand we need.”