Grain by Grain: A Story of Our Stolen Sand
Ecologists are sounding the alarm, as many beaches are suddenly giving up to erosion caused by the extraction of sand. Sand is so scarce lately that a black market has been created for it while overnight thefts have become a serious problem in many countries.
Being one of the most used natural resources except for air and water, makes sand an essential resource to sustain our way of life. The majority of built structures contain sand in some form. Every house, large shopping mall or paved road is made with concrete (a mixture of gravel, sand, cement and water).
Sand is a key constituent of modern development, and yet natural sandy beaches will soon become a thing of the past. According to Prof. J.R. Gillis, 85 percent of these beaches are being destroyed, due to erosion caused by the impacts of climate change and widespread urban development.
Such degradation can be seen in most parts of the world, as demand for sand rapidly increases. That is mainly due to the need to build larger cities with complex infrastructure to house a growing human population.
Population on Earth has risen from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 7.3 billion today, with more than half living in cities . Projections for 2030 show that about 5 billion people will live in cities , which represents a significant demand for building materials, including finite natural resource such as sand.
Sand is made of different minerals and rock sediments, that are broken into tiny fragments over thousands of years. Therefore, you can compare it to fossil fuels, such as oil, coal or gas.
To acquire sand suitable for construction, mining companies are extracting only sand from river beds, floodplains and beaches. Desert sand, shaped by wind, is too fine to be used in construction, and not suitable for our use.
Sand mining on a massive scale, often done illegally, leaves behind great desolation of aquatic and riparian ecosystems. Consequences can be as serious as groundwater depletion through changes of important hydrologic functions of a waterbody, severe erosion of banks and increased vulnerability of the area to flooding.
Nowadays, the problem is even greater, since the largest river sand deposits are being exhausted on a global scale and coastal sand is being depleted at high rate, exposing surrounding areas to erosion.
Both legal and illegal sand mining represents one of the biggest hazards to the natural protective function of coastlines. In California’s Monterey Bay, which is one of the state’s most protected coastlines, Mexican cement company Cemex SAB extracts about 159 000 tons of sand a year .
Since the mining started, portions between 0.5 to 1.5 meters of coast are being washed off every year due to erosion . In Africa, Gabon is facing an increased risk of flooding over almost 65 percent of its total area due to sand mining operations . And more than 20 tiny islands have disappeared totally in Indonesia to provide sand for constructions in Singapore .
What is being done?
Unfortunately, there is a large difference between the scale of the problem and public awareness. According to a UNEP report, the main reason for this gap in public awareness is the lack of global monitoring of mining operations.
Careful monitoring would be the first step towards arousing the interest of environmentalists and concern among the general public. With such little supervision of mining operations, there is no easy way to prevent further destruction of the environment. Stricter regulations could help, but there are a few issues that need to be addressed first.
These issues are:
- Transportation – The cost of transportation is high because sand is a heavy material. With local restrictions, distances will be even greater, which will increase not only price of it but also its carbon footprint.
- Illegal Actions – Laws in some countries ban the mining of sand from rivers but with growing demand for this resource more people are willing to take the risk and extract it illegally – steal sand. This causes not only environmental damage, but also loss of lives from conflicts or accidents.
- Pricy Alternatives – Researchers are already looking for alternative materials such as recycled plastic or rammed earth to decrease our need of sand in construction. The problem is the quantities available. We need an alternative to satisfy our demand for 40 billion tons of sand a year .
We have to start thinking of sand as a precious natural resource, and focus on reusing as much of it as possible from old concrete structures rather than destroying coastal ecosystems with greedy over-extraction. The issues of uncontrolled mining itself deserve to be taken more seriously by scientists and governments.
Through targeted policies and with use of alternative materials, natural sandy beaches can be perhaps spared total destruction before it is too late. Through their ecologic function they will pay us back by protecting coastal land from being slowly consumed by the ocean.