By Paul Lima
April, 28 2019
Sand, add it to the list of endangered resources. Its high demand is bringing about something once considered unthinkable - its scarcity. Not just any sand, but the perfect grains for construction (think beach sand) and its generating both environmental damage and the destabilization of vital fisheries.
Where Did It All Go? To understand the sand shortage, look no further than the modern city. Virtually every skyscraper, airport, shopping mall, and office building are made of concrete which uses sand – a colossal amount of it.
We are using more sand today than any other non-renewable resource. China alone used more concrete in two years than the U.S. used in the entire 20th Century (a number that stunned Bill Gates on Twitter).
An estimated 40 billion tons of sand and gravel are processed worldwide every year- an insane volume that prompted a United Nations report to confirm "sand is now being extracted at a rate far greater than their renewal", which could jeopardize Trumps border wall requiring over 20 million tons of concrete.
Moreover, there’s so little sand left in land quarries and riverbeds, and because plentiful desert sand is too round for concrete, the industry is looking elsewhere for its essential construction grade sand. And they’ve found it - the ocean - which turns out to be a really bad idea.
Sea of Costs. Marine environments are complex things. And if removing large amounts of sand from its rivers, beaches and seafloors sounds counter intuitive to a healthy ecosystem, you’re not alone. “The consequences are tremendous” states a United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) report on marine sand mining.
Marine sand is home to a cacophony of small organisms which attract fish and as one would expect, coastal fishermen. These artisanal fishermen are key players in global food security, suppling protein for millions of coastal residents worldwide.
Sand mining undermines that key role by harming fish habitat and migration patterns. In short, it jeopardizes the food chains fragile biodiversity already battered by rising seas and climate change.
Dredging the World’s Poor. Our planet’s population is projected to exceed a whopping 8.5 billion in just ten years. Municipalities will need construction-sand to build apartment buildings, schools and hospitals and dredging sand, near coastal fisheries, is by far the most convenient and damaging way to get it.
Massive dredging ships vacuum up millions of tons of sand from the coastal seabed each year, chewing up fish habitats and putting coastal fisheries at risk, reports Business Insider.
Coastal fisheries, in terms of global food security, are the main drivers of the rural economy. They employ 96% of all fishers worldwide, supplying protein for millions of coastal residents as reported by Anna Holl-Buhl, a policy advisor for fisheries for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Despite its vital role, their small scale political power commands little attention from policy makers, which essentially leaves them to fend for themselves against sand mining operations. For example, in Korea over a hundred fishermen sued the local authority for habitat degradation caused by dredging. In Vietnam lobster fishermen took matters into their own hands, attacking sand miners they blamed for destroying their livelihoods. And, in Uganda a fisherman puts it succinctly, “Sand mining is helping the construction industry to grow, but it is contributing to the death of the fish industry”.
Stealing a Beach. As if their problems are not enough fisherfolk have to contend with the phenomenon of sand theft. According to the UN, stealing sand is a lucrative practice generating billions of illegal sand transactions annually.
Across Asia and Africa, organized crime syndicates steal sand, usually at night, often by enlisting local residents with promises of high wages or simply by force. Those who oppose the illegal operations put their lives at risk.
Near Mumbai the “sand mafia” has filled the employment void left by the collapse of traditional fishing. Here, men take deep breaths and dive into coastal creeks and rivers using iron buckets to dredge up sand from 40ft below, risking life and limb and furthering the degradation of local ecosystems.
In Sierra Leone, when fishermen go out to sea, they come back with bags of sand but not a single fish. Hit hard by a decline in fishing - and out of options - fishermen are emptying their beaches and fishing grounds of sand, a self-inflicted death blow to their way of life.
Concrete without Sand. Concrete’s formula has not changed for a long time and innovation is not a word normally associated with the industry. But, scarcity of natural sand, tightening of regulations and the environmental damage associated with its removal has given rise to an industry shift to sand substitutes. This is especially true in wealthy countries where natural sand is losing its appeal, all told, over 12 different types of sand substitutes are now being used in construction around the world.
Even Donald Trump, real-estate mogul and US President, and a self-confessed climate change denier, finds his name attached to the push to end the mining of sea and river sand. A building that is a model of environmental responsibility, the Trump Towers in India looking over beautiful Pune’s skyline, is built almost entirely of a sand substitute called M-sand created by crushing granite rocks down to the size that emulates natural river and sea sand.
However, few economically challenged nations can afford the price tag of investing in M-sand. In fact, much of the developing world is still heavily dependent on beach and river sand to build their growing urban centers.
Where Sand is King. In the expanding cities of Cape Verde, Morocco, Vietnam and elsewhere concrete construction is big business requiring large volumes of sand. So great is the demand that sand is scraped from local beaches and farmlands degrading fisheries and agriculture alike. A two prong assault that destroys people’s livelihoods, but also undermines food security, which has quietly become a global concern, research shows.
At the same time, sand mining is also a job creator tool for many coastal communities. High profits for sand-contractors can mean good wages and funding of community projects such as schools. Indeed, evidence suggests that jobs from sand harvesting, although short lived, play a significant role in the economic development of countries and people's livelihoods.
This duplicity belies the failure of governments to create alternative employment to harvesting sand, which experts call a poverty driven activity. At the same token, rural communities do themselves harm by acting in their own immediate self-interest (wages from mining) with little regard for the long-term livelihood and security of their community.
Legacy. Unfortunately for fishermen as long as the demand for sand is high, easy to take and profitable to sell, it will be removed by any means necessary in order to supply the global demand for urban infrastructure.
Even in the US, the global leader of sand exports and production, excessive sand mining, often illegal, is blamed for much of the flooding in Texas from Hurricane Harvey although the mining company disputes this.
No matter where it occurs in the world, taking too much sand has a tremendous impact on the environment. Developing countries with small, vulnerable economies are disproportionately affected. Upwards from 50 to 90% of the protein they will consume comes from fish caught by local small-scale artisanal fishers. This is way above the global average of 17%, reports WWF.
Meanwhile, sand mining is also opening a Pandora’s box of unexpected consequences. For instance, new damages associated with sand extraction are coming into focus, including increased evidence of emerging bacterial diseases – such as the Buruli ulcer, in West Africa, the spread of malaria in Iran, increase levels of radiation from mining in Australia, India and Mozambique, and environmental refugees in Sri Lanka and the Mekong Delta.
Looking for Answers. There is no easy fix for the looming sand crises. But, if the aim is to reduce dependence on natural sand and turn sand gobbling high-rise buildings into turrets of change like the Trump Tower in Pune India - then cutting edge technology might hold the key.
For example, researchers and engineers have re-purposed industrial waste, namely from coal, copper and iron that leaves coarse granules called ash and slag that can be used to replace natural sand in concrete as it has in China.
And, researchers in the UK have shown that ground up plastic bottles can be substituted for sand in concrete. This approach is calculated to save 900 million tons of sand a year, and help reduce levels of plastic waste.
However, clever ideas alone will not dig us out of our sand addiction. This is especially true in developing countries where the price of innovation is often out of reach. For these cash strapped economies, a bottom-up approach may be a better alternative.
Research in a grassroots strategy is emerging and deserves a serious look says Regulatory Research Analyst Esi Eshun in her article about artisan mining in Ghana.
Self-governing common-pool resources, like sand, recognizes the potential for local leadership to design and implement their own rules without government intervention which tend to be prohibitively expensive to enforce, she explains.
A similar conclusion is held by the Bloomberg Philanthropies Vibrant Oceans Initiative, a philanthropy arm of the ex-mayor of NYC, Michael Bloomberg. It boasts the largest investment in coastal fisheries aimed at revitalizing the world’s declining supply of fish by “Empowering local communities with direct control over their resources”.
Be it harvesting sand or fish, local leadership don’t always get a place at the table of resource management, but perhaps it should.
It all boils down to one truth - we need to get a handle on our over consumption of sand. If climate change has taught us anything it’s that change happens fast and things can quickly get out of hand. So the time to act is now. Whether by innovation or regulation, we can ill afford yet another resource crisis. The effect will be felt among all nations, but more profoundly in the developing world.
It’s helpful to remember that sandy beaches and clean ocean waters may be vacation luxuries for some of us, but, for fishermen and the coastal poor, in developing nations with limited economic opportunity, they are matters of survival.