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Sand is a basic ingredient of modern life, most notably as a component of concrete buildings. Our consumption ...
2019-06-17 10:00:00

A Foundation That’s Falling Apart
Our Dangerous Over-Reliance on Sand

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann/Unsplash
A Foundation That’s Falling Apart
A Foundation That’s Falling Apart

Among natural resources, sand has one of the fastest-rising prices. And it is far from being abundant. What’s more, the illegal trade in sand grains can be fatally dangerous.

Read in 11 minutes

Until now, lying on a mound of sand has been synonymous with summer relaxation, but soon it will become a luxury. While the prices of oil and gas are falling, the value of sand on global markets has been rising for several decades, and has jumped sharply since the start of the 21st century. This phenomenon has been overlooked, but is dramatic. Those environmentalists who specialize in the issue of sand talk of a silent catastrophe, drowned out by the entirely justifiable alarm over plastic pollution in the oceans and the scarcity of fresh water. Contrary to the naïve belief that the Earth has an unlimited supply of this common and seemingly ubiquitous raw material, we have less and less sand, and are consuming it ever more voraciously.

By the end of this century, the majority of beaches in California will have disappeared and the idyllic beaches in Indonesia will be gone; the sandy terrains of Goa and Kerala are also at risk. But this is not because of rising sea levels. Well before our favourite postcard scenes are consumed by the waves, they could be stolen and… ground into concrete.

The foundation of civilization

Although none of us buy it personally in shops or markets, we are all dependent on this raw material that we consume in gigantic quantities. The third most intensively used natural resource after water and air, it is found in many everyday goods: toothpaste, glass, electronic devices such as smartphones and computers, microchips, breast implants… It is used in the production of wine and food, paper and plastic. It is a basic ingredient of modern-day life.

It is also the foundation of our entire civilization. We owe humanity’s achievements and socio-economic development to buildings. For a long time now, at every latitude, such buildings have been built of concrete. What exactly is concrete? 10% cement, 15% water and 75% sand. Around 200 tonnes of sand are needed for a house; to build a hospital, it takes around 3000 tonnes. Every kilometre of motorway uses as much as 10,000 tonnes of sand.

At the end of World War II, the fever of urbanization took hold. This process is still expanding, more recently at completely unprecedented levels. The common urbanized area – the word ‘megapolis’ doesn’t even begin to cover its immensity – of the Pearl River Delta in China is home to nearly 100 million people. Everything that they move around on – roads, bridges, flyovers, train tracks – is built of concrete or asphalt, which is also made with sand. It is China and India in particular – with the two largest populations in the world, engaged in rapid development and a transformation from rural to urban societies – that are consuming the most sand. The Chinese alone are building exponentially. In barely two years – between 2011 and 2013 – they used more concrete (6.5 gigatonnes) than the US consumed over the entire 20th century (4.5 gigatonnes). And that is just part of the arithmetic, because these figures do not include Chinese foreign infrastructure investments under the so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is to cover several continents and construction projects in countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The Poyang Lake is the key source of sand for the Chinese, from the bottom of which a total of 250 billion cubic metres has already been extracted. Today, this is the largest sand pit in the world.

Demand for sand will grow alongside the ongoing transformation of large natural areas into urbanized zones, coupled with population growth. Neither of these global megatrends show any sign of weakening, at least not according to the UN’s forecasts for the next century.

Valuable grains

Global use of sand stands at 50 billion tonnes per annum. This is more or less the amount needed to build a 27 x 27 metre wall around the equator. Currently, our appetite for sand is growing at 10% a year. On top of this, the price of sand fluctuates considerably on different markets around the world, and it is difficult to pin down an average price. In places where it is sparse and difficult to supply, sand can cost as much as $75 per cubic metre. The cost of sand includes not just the costs of extraction (whether mechanical or by hand) but also transport – it is a heavy material that travels slowly by boat, train and lorry.

Apart from increasing demand, the price of sand is also determined by its limited supply. Although the desert sand dunes of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia stretch away to the horizon, this doesn’t mean that the Sheikhs are sitting on a fortune. In order to build the Burj Khalifa, the tallest skyscraper in the world, or a new tower in Mecca, the sand for the concrete must be imported from places as far away as Australia. Wind-blown, desert sand has perfect, ideally-round grains, and is therefore unstable. But concrete needs something much less refined – coarse grains of sand with uneven edges, which stick to each other, connecting like a puzzle. Sand from the bottom of the sea and oceans isn’t too bad, but the salt has to be washed out so that it doesn’t corrode metal elements, like the steel frames used to construct buildings. The best sand is found at the bottom of rivers. The most valuable grains of sand are those that are washed out of rocks and crushed, carried down from the mountains by the current. In nature, this process takes thousands of years, while our pursuit of sand has already robbed many riverbeds of this sediment.

The largest importer of sand in the world is tiny Singapore, which covers an area roughly the size of Warsaw. This is because the super-rich, ultra-urbanized island is growing. Since gaining independence in 1965, Singapore’s land mass has increased by a record 23%. If you stand on the viewing terrace of the Marina Bay Sands building, which was built on a piece of artificial land, then from the 64th floor of this luxury hotel, casino and retail complex, you can see residential districts which – like the brand-new Punggol – look like endless stretches of concrete pillars. Singapore has also ‘built’ itself a separate island where it processes rubbish, and another one where it refines oil brought in by enormous tankers.

Land not on the map

10 years ago, the authorities of this influential state officially bought three million tonnes of sand from Malaysia. In reality, the bridge connecting these countries regularly carried loaded dumper trucks, and the true scale of the imports was 133 million tonnes. At the same time, the Singaporeans bought so much sand from Indonesia, which extracted it from the seabed, that around 20 islands disappeared from their territorial waters. It was a disagreement with its southern Asian neighbours over sand – and the unprecedented scale of Singapore’s territorial growth – that provoked the most serious diplomatic crisis in the country’s short history.

But sand is also used as a political currency by other players in the region. Most aggressive are the Chinese government, who in recent years have created artificial islands in the South China Sea, using sand and rocks sucked up from the sea floor. These new ‘geographical facts’ are proliferating so quickly that Google is struggling to keep its maps up-to-date. Sometimes it’s a question of a just a few weeks when, here and there – in waters contested by 10 countries – a new piece of land pops up, and on it a flagpole with a Chinese flag, sometimes sporting heavy artillery or other military installations. What precisely is on these islands remains a mystery, because no one can get close. But the intent is clear: the Chinese are delivering on their doctrine, according to which the South China Sea is a part of their territorial waters. Scientists employed by Beijing prepare historical justifications to support this doctrine and refuse countries like the Philippines and Vietnam the right to use the waters.

The Chinese claims reach as far as the waters along the coast of Indonesia. This all has a wider context and significance – the South China Sea is the ‘route’ to the Pacific, and therefore a way to destabilize or eliminate American hegemony in these waters. It is precisely for this reason that dredgers are required, like the Jun Yang 1 – the largest ship of its kind in the world, built by a Chinese state company. This ship literally sucks up the sea floor, hoovering up, together with the sand, the microorganisms that are the first link in the complicated food chain of all sea life. The course of such a ship therefore creates miniature ‘ends of the world’, altering enormous ecosystems. As a consequence of taking sand from the bottom of seas and oceans – from remote areas of the waters – very soon coral reefs, swamps, coastal grasslands and lichens will disappear. In a word: millions of other living things. And fishermen will begin to starve.

Castles on the sand

It was politics, not so much military as image-related, that encouraged the leaders of the UAE to import 186 million tonnes of sand and to build artificial islands in amazing shapes. Apart from the palm islands of Jumeirah and Jebel Ali, they also built an entire archipelago called The World, neatly reflecting the ambitions of the authorities and investors. In this way, little Dubai is extending its coastline (plots of land by the water are several times more expensive than those inland), and Abu Dhabi is building its position as the cultural and social navel of the world, building theme parks alongside local branches of prestigious museums – like the Louvre and Guggenhiem – on artificial islands. Ironically enough, the ambitions of the Emiratis, Qataris and Saudis in their desire to build upwards, in the Manhattan style, are doubly costly. It is not just that you cannot use desert sand to build skyscrapers, but that such sand is so fine that buildings need much deeper, hardened foundations than normal. ‘Concrete piles’, several dozen metres deep, underpin each tower.

Artificial land is now very much in fashion. The more the sand is removed from the bottom of seas and rivers, the more new landmasses appear on maps. Take the Khazar (or Caspian) Islands archipelago near Baku, a luxury enclave of offices and apartments built on the water. Or the new district in Lagos, a mushrooming metropolis in Nigeria where, as a result of aggressive drought and fertilizer use, the sand is now giving birth to an African Manhattan, with the active participation of Chinese companies.

Sand is also in ever greater demand in the West. There are shortages of it in countries like the US and Canada. Although there is now less construction going on in this part of the world, sand is used in the extraction of crude oil from deep wells or where drilling is impossible. There is furore over the environmental devastation caused by fracking technology – it requires the injection of large quantities of water and sand under high pressure, and is the starkest example of the destruction of natural resources to meet the demands of a high-energy lifestyle. The consequences of fracking can be seen in the immense Wisconsin marshes – one of the richest places in the US for biodiversity – which are disappearing due to the extraction of large amounts of sand.

Mafia business

It’s been common knowledge for years that the Italian mafia controls the rubbish disposal business. But a new phenomenon is the Indian sand mafia, which employs thousands of poor people to extract sand from rivers. Despite the fact that for nearly 10 years there have been strict regulations on the Ganges (and in many other countries), requiring special permits for sand extraction, they are not followed – in Poland, too, around 50% of sand is extracted illegally. The control of illegal extraction is a problem the world over, among other things because it generally takes place in remote and isolated areas.

In India, this theft takes place in broad daylight and on a massive scale. Unfortunately, the mafia organizations bribe the police and inspectors. An army of people from the villages perform the work in unhealthy and life-threatening conditions; employees dive down with normal buckets, often diving as many as 200 times a day, developing, among other things, respiratory diseases. Drownings and accidents go unnoticed. Moreover, they are contributing to the destruction of their own environment.

This business is so serious and unsafe that it leads to murder – such as that of the journalist who was killed after publishing material about the corruption and indifference of the police. Unsupportive residents and environmentalists are also murdered. Meanwhile, sand extraction destroys the environment. According to ecology activists, all the important rivers of the Indian subcontinent have already been stripped of this raw material. Now the beaches along the coast of the Arabian Sea are threatened; those most popular with tourists. It is estimated that more than 100 billion tonnes of sand have already been illegally extracted in India.

Although it is hard to believe, sand mafias across the world are dealing in beach stealing. The most spectacular hit took place in 2008 in Jamaica, where, in just one night, 500 lorries took away the magnificent Coral Spring beach. The inhabitants of the seaside village woke to find themselves up to their knees in water because the natural barrier separating them from the waves had disappeared. Few of us will have noticed, but over the last decade, every beach in the world has narrowed by 40 metres on average. Many of the shortages, especially in tourist resorts, are supplemented with imported sand, but this only exacerbates the problem. Sand brought in from remote regions upsets the local ecosystems, and is generally too fine to do the job properly. It works more like glue – creating a barrier that prevents the natural movement of sands on the seabed during tides. Another problem is from where, and under what circumstances, the sand is brought to a holiday paradise. In 2017, a resort in the Canary Islands received a transport of sand that had been seized by Morocco from disputed territories in the Sahara.

And so – grain-by-grain – the picture of the far-reaching consequences of our greedy lifestyle gets ever more complex. The high consumption rates of everything that uses sand mean that the global sand business is now worth $70 billion a year.

What can be done?

We haven’t yet developed the technologies to replace sand in the production of our indispensable concrete. There’s also no chance of replenishing it naturally – the creation of sand can take hundreds or thousands of years. And we can only cover about 10% of annual demand with recycled glass and plastic. One important way to reduce sand consumption is through intelligent construction, in particular by building with thinner walls and less glass. But we would make the greatest change for the better if – as with oil, plastic and water – we could significantly limit consumption.

So, during this year’s summer holiday, we can make our own small contribution. Let’s ensure that we shake out our beach towels, windbreaks and straw hats thoroughly, and let every grain remain where it belongs.


Translated by Annie Krasińska