S A N D : Essential . . . Unregulated . . . and Dwindling

Sand Mining in Quarry Lake, Tahirpur, Bangladesh (by Hasin Hayder on unsplash).
Sand Mining in Quarry Lake, Tahirpur, Bangladesh (by Hasin Hayder on unsplash).

“Sand is the foundation of human construction and a fundamental ingredient in concrete, asphalt, glass and other building materials. But sand, like other natural resources, is limited and its ungoverned extraction is driving erosion, flooding, the salination of aquifers and the collapse of coastal defences…” – The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) February 2023


How Sand Mining Is Quietly Creating A Major Global Environmental Crisis

Sand mining operation on the Red River, near Danan Village in Yunnan Province, China (by Vmenkov, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia).

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has partnered with Kenyan spoken word poet Beatrice Kariuki to shed light on the problems associated with sand mining, part of a wider push towards a zero waste world.

“We must redouble our efforts to build a circular economy, and take rubble to build structures anew,” Kariuki says in a new video. “Because without new thinking, the sands of time will run out.”

Sand is the second-most used resource on Earth, after water. It is often dredged from rivers, dug up along coastlines and mined. The 50 billion tonnes of sand thought to be extracted for construction every year is enough to build a nine-storey wall around the planet.

A 2022 report from UNEP, titled Sand and Sustainability: 10 Strategic Recommendations to Avert a Crisis, found that sand extraction is rising about 6 per cent annually, a rate it called unsustainable. The study outlined the scale of the problem and the lack of governance, calling for sand to be “recognized as a strategic resource” and for “its extraction and use… to be rethought…”


Additional Reading:

Our use of sand brings us “up against the wall”, says UNEP report

Sand and Sustainability: 10 Strategic Recommendations to Avert a Crisis

The role of resource extraction in a “circular” world

A sand dredger actively working close to an oyster’s nest in Nigeria, 2019 (by Ei'eke CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia).

UN-developed Marine Sand Watch estimates 6bn tonnes dug up a year, well beyond rate at which it is replenished.

One million lorries of sand a day are being extracted from the world’s oceans, posing a “significant” threat to marine life and coastal communities facing rising sea levels and storms, according to the first-ever global data platform to monitor the industry.

The new data platform, developed by the UN Environment Programme (Unep), tracks and monitors dredging of sand in the marine environment by using the AIS (automatic identification systems) data from ships. Using data from 2012-19, Marine Sand Watch estimates the dredging industry is digging up 6bn tonnes of marine sand a year, a scale described as “alarming”. The rate of extraction is growing globally, Unep said, and is approaching the natural rate of replenishment of 10bn to 16bn tonnes of sand flowing into the sea from rivers and needed to maintain coastal structure and ecosystems.

The platform has identified “hotspots” including the North Sea, south-east Asia and the east coast of the United States as areas of concern. In many places where extraction is more intense, including parts of Asia, marine sand is being extracted well beyond the rate at which it is being replenished from rivers.

“The scale of environmental impacts of shallow sea mining activities and dredging is alarming, including biodiversity, water turbidity, and noise impacts on marine mammals,” said Pascal Peduzzi, the director of GRID-Geneva at Unep.

“This data signals the urgent need for better management of marine sand resources and to reduce the impacts of shallow sea mining,” he said. “Unep invites all stakeholders, member states and the dredging sector to consider sand as a strategic material, and to swiftly engage in talks on how to improve dredging standards around the world.”

Developed by GRID-Geneva, a centre for analytics within Unep, Marine Sand Watch has trained artificial intelligence to identify the movement of dredging vessels from its AIS data. It has data from 2012-19 from Global Fishing Watch, a company set up to track commercial fishing activities using AIS data from fishing vessels, but is working on more recent data.

Sand and gravel makes up half of all the materials mined in the world. Globally, 50bn tonnes of sand and gravel are used every year – the equivalent of a wall 27 metres high and 27 metres wide stretching round the equator. It is the key ingredient of concrete and asphalt.

“Our entire society is built on sand, the floor of your building is probably concrete, the glass on the windows, the asphalt on roads is made of sand,” said Peduzzi. “We can’t stop doing it because we need lots of concrete for the green transition, for wind turbines and other things…”


The dredger ship "Hansitha" on the Mundakkal coast near Kollam, India (by Arunvrparavur CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia).

The greed for grains of sand comes at an ecological disaster and fatal human cost; murders and other associated crimes which have taken a toll on poverty-stricken communities, particularly women.

The ERC investigation, Beneath the Sands, exposes how greed for grains of sand comes at a fatal human cost: As cities rise in number and countries urbanize rapidly, sand mining-related murders and other associated crimes have taken a toll on poverty-stricken communities.

We documented sand-related crimes happening in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Philippines and India, from tax evasion, trespassing to threats stalking activists to people caught in the crossfire between gangs known as ‘sand mafias.’

Finally, we look at how sand mining impacted the women in Cambodia, India, Kenya, and Indonesia. From home to the streets, women are on the frontlines in the resistance against these powerful sand mining operations.

Here are the stories they uncovered…

Read other articles in the series :

Women in a community meeting, Mumbai, India (by Simone D. McCourtie, World Bank Photo Collection CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr).

Women against the grain – Beneath the Sands ERC

Women in Cambodia, India, Kenya and Indonesia share how they are on the frontlines in the resistance against powerful sand mining operations in their communities.

In a trade that is dominated and driven by men, women often bear the burden of the negative social and environmental impacts from sand mining activities across the world. This is evident in much of our reporting on the global industry. As is common with many environmental issues we face today, we feel that the disproportionate burden to women is a heavily underreported issue…

Sand collecting in Mekong (by Yosomono CC BY 2.0 via Flickr).

We can’t run away – Beneath the Sands ERC

The rise in sand demand endangers the lives of children, laborers, journalists and environmental defenders.

Greed over grains of sand has a fatal human cost: As cities rise and countries urbanize, sand-related murders and other associated crimes have taken a toll on poverty-stricken communities.

In parts of the globe, where sand is extracted, criminal gangs and sand mafias control the multi-billion dollar trade, spawning violence in land-rich, developing nations. On their trail are hundreds of people — miners, journalists and environmental defenders — reported to have been killed, imprisoned or threatened…

Centara Three Island Reclamation Project(by Maldives Transport & Contracting Company CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikimedia).

Reclamation: A flawed solution – Beneath the Sands ERC

A deep dive into the rationale behind some of Asia’s reclamation projects, the toll they take on our environment and communities, and the search for more sustainable alternatives.

Reclamation is seen as a solution for countries to deal with increasing land demands, by expanding their territory and rehabilitating previously uninhabitable lands or seas. Yet, the process guzzles an alarming amount of sand, causing massive environmental damage as well as a rise of transnational criminal syndicates trading in illegal sand..

Collecting sand, Laos, 2018 (by Mary Newcombe CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr).

Nowhere to fish, nowhere to farm – Beneath the Sands ERC

Across Asia and Africa, countries are dealing with massive sand mining that destroys fishing grounds, farmlands, and homes.

Beting Aceh, an island in Riau Province, Indonesia, has been Eryanto’s home for 40 years. The island is known for its white sandy beaches and clean ocean water; more than half its residents are fishers.

But the island has drastically changed over the past two years. The ocean water is getting murky, the beach is shrinking, and it has suffered from massive erosion, indicated by the uprooted trees strewn along the coast. Many villagers say the damage is linked to a sand mining operation happening between Beting Aceh and the neighboring Babi Island…

Comparing Global Exports and Imports of Natural Sands, 2020 (Treemap visualization created with Harvard University's Atlas of Economic Complexity application online, May 30, 2023).

Global sand trade figures don’t add up – Beneath the Sands ERC

On March 17, more than 120 tons of sand packed into drums was loaded onto the Basle Express, a container freight ship more than three soccer fields long. The ship was docked in one of America’s major ports, Savannah, Georgia, in the Southeast region of the country.

The shipment itself was not remarkable — except for how it is emblematic of the international sand trade, highlighting the type of sand that attracts foreign buyers, the countries that are buying and those that are selling…

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