• Su Ning Goh

Sand: Coarse, Rough, and Running Out


“Scarcity” conjures a poignant image of a barren landscape. The land is scarce — of water, of living creatures, of life. But there are different kinds of scarcity, and some of them may surprise you. Consider once again the image of parched land: what if I told you that the very dirt itself is a scarce resource too? For most of us, this seems inconceivable. But the reality is that a global sand shortage is underway, as highlighted in a 2014 UN Environment Program report titled “Sand, rarer than one thinks”. (1) Because of rising demand, sand - a finite resource - is running out.

It may seem bizarre to think that there is not enough sand in the world. What about the deserts? There is literally nothing there but sand. However, the issue of sand scarcity is not that there isn’t enough sand per se — it is that there isn’t enough sand of the right type. Desert sand, while plentiful, is too fine and rounded for practical uses. This is much like the issue of water scarcity: while three-quarters of the Earth is covered in water, only 2.5% of this is freshwater, and just over 1% of this freshwater is readily accessible for human consumption. (2) Sand would be the equivalent of freshwater, as it uniquely possesses certain geological characteristics that make it useful. Natural aggregates (sand, gravel, and other crushed stones) are the “second most heavily exploited natural resource, after water” (3) A versatile material, sand is used in construction, contributing to 80% of asphalt pavements and 90% of concrete roads. (4) It is critical in land reclamation projects, where massive amounts of sand are poured into the ocean to create artificial extensions of land. (5) Sand is also used in many consumer goods, like cell-phone screens, and is an important part of everyday processes like water filtration and oil fracking. (6)

In economics, scarcity is defined as the gap between unlimited wants and limited resources. In this case, the skyrocketing demand for sand has outpaced the rate at which it is naturally replenished. (7) The combined effect of a growing population and economic development has led to a dramatic push for urban development, and therefore an increase in the demand for sand as part of construction. (8) This is evidenced in Vietnam, where it is predicted that the country will run out of sand as soon as 2020. (9) Sand is a common-pool resource, meaning that it is prohibitively expensive or impossible to truly regulate access to. (10) This difficulty in regulation, coupled with the high global demand for sand, has created a black market which further enables the exploitation of the natural resource. (11)

Sand is a crucial element of economic activity. Economic growth and construction are correlated, and this trend is seen especially clearly in Asian countries. (12) Much of the demand for sand in recent years can be traced to China’s breakneck development and growth. The demand for cement in China has increased by 437.5% in the past 20 years, compared to the global increase of 59.8%. (13) In 2016, half of the sand mined globally ended up being used in Chinese construction projects. (14)

The exploitative mining of sand has significant environmental consequences. By extracting large amounts of sand from beaches and riverbanks, the local ecosystem is transformed irreversibly. Aquatic plants are no longer able to grow, and the diversity of aquatic animals is affected. (15) Sand mining threatens endangered species such as the Ganges river dolphin and the Sao Paulo marsh antwren. (16) When sand is taken from rivers, the river may become more prone to flooding, or can dry up completely. (17) Mining from beaches leads to coastal erosion, making coastal areas more vulnerable to natural disasters. (18) A bitter irony transpired in Sri Lanka, where mining exacerbated the impact of the 2004 tsunami, leading to an increased demand for sand for coastal restoration in the aftermath. (19) The knock-on effects from the immediate impact on bodies of water are of concern as well. The effect on the water supply leads to shortages in drinking water, and affects the ability of farmers to water their crops. (20) The conditions caused by sand mining — namely through creating stagnant pools of water — have also been shown to be correlated with the spread of malaria. (21)

Not only does this scarcity create environmental impacts, it also has become a source of social conflict. In India, the booming construction industry copes with the sand shortage through “sand mafias”, who illegally mine sand from river-beds and beaches. (22) Because of the competitiveness of the industry, these sand mafias do not hesitate to resort to violence to protect their share of what has become known as “red gold”. (23) The limited supply of sand means that buyers are willing to pay more for it: today, the international trade value of sand is 6 times what it was 25 years ago. (24) This is a major incentive for criminal organizations, who gain a revenue of around $17 million from this black market. On an international level, the scarcity of sand between countries has also become a tense matter. Using sand from Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaysia for its massive land reclamation projects, Singapore has grown its landmass by 20% since its independence. (25) Singapore’s land reclamation has threatened its neighbors’ sovereignty, and raised concerns over the environmental impact of large-scale sand mining. (26) As a result, these countries have banned exports of sand to Singapore in the past, with Cambodia most recently passing a permanent ban on sand sales to Singapore in July 2017. (27)

As it stands, there is no solution in sight to the scarcity of sand. To alleviate the shortage, either the supply has to increase, or the demand has to decrease. Unfortunately, the supply of sand is finite. While large deposits of sand do exist in the United States, they are inaccessible and modern regulations prevent them from being mined. (28) The demand of sand is expected to increase, alongside the growing global population, thereby exacerbating the shortage. (29) Even though recycling concrete rubble and using quarry dust as a substitute for sand can help to reduce some of its demand, an alternative to sand in its different applications has yet to be found. (30) Till then, the least that can be done is to become aware of the scarcity surrounding this majorly overlooked resource, and understand the dire consequences of taking sand for granted.

Citations

  1. United Nations Environment Program Global Environment Alert Service. 2014. "Sand, rarer than one thinks." https://na.unep.net/geas/archive/pdfs/GEAS_Mar2014_Sand_Mining.pdf

  2. US Geological Survey Water Science School. 2016. "The World's Water." https://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthwherewater.html

  3. Owen, David. 2017. "The World Is Running Out Of Sand". The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/29/the-world-is-running-out-of-sand.

  4. United Nations Environment Program Global Environment Alert Service. 2014. "Sand, rarer than one thinks."

  5. "An Improbable Global Shortage: Sand". 2017. The Economist. https://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21719797-thanks-booming-construction-activity-asia-sand-high-demand.

  6. Owen, David. 2017. "The World Is Running Out Of Sand". The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/29/the-world-is-running-out-of-sand.

  7. "The Economist Explains: Why There Is A Shortage Of Sand". 2017. The Economist. https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2017/04/economist-explains-8.

  8. Torres, Aurora, Jodi Brandt, Kristen Lear, and Jianguo Liu. 2017. "A Looming Tragedy Of The Sand Commons". Science. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/357/6355/970.full.

  9. Torres, Aurora, Jodi Brandt, Kristen Lear, and Jianguo Liu. 2017. "The World is Running Out of Sand". The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-world-is-facing-a-global-sand-crisis-83557.

  10. Ibid.

  11. "The Economist Explains: Why There Is A Shortage Of Sand". 2017. The Economist. https://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2017/04/economist-explains-8.

  12. United Nations Environment Program Global Environment Alert Service. 2014. "Sand, rarer than one thinks."

  13. Ibid.

  14. "An Improbable Global Shortage: Sand". 2017. The Economist. https://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21719797-thanks-booming-construction-activity-asia-sand-high-demand.

  15. United Nations Environment Program Global Environment Alert Service. 2014. "Sand, rarer than one thinks."

  16. Torres, Aurora, Jodi Brandt, Kristen Lear, and Jianguo Liu. 2017. "A Looming Tragedy Of The Sand Commons". Science. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/357/6355/970.full.

  17. United Nations Environment Program Global Environment Alert Service. 2014. "Sand, rarer than one thinks."

  18. Ibid.

  19. Torres, Aurora, Jodi Brandt, Kristen Lear, and Jianguo Liu. 2017. "A Looming Tragedy Of The Sand Commons". Science. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/357/6355/970.full.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Hawley, Samantha. 2017. "The 'Sand Mafia' Fuelling India's $120 Billion Building Boom". ABC News. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-28/the-great-sand-heist-fuelling-india-120-billion-building/8390984.

  23. Paul, Sonia. 2017. "How India's 'Sand Mafia' Pillages Land, Terrorizes People, And Gets Away With It". VICE News. https://news.vice.com/article/how-indias-sand-mafia-pillages-land-terrorizes-people-and-gets-away-with-it.

  24. Torres, Aurora, Jodi Brandt, Kristen Lear, and Jianguo Liu. 2017. "The World is Running Out of Sand". The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-world-is-facing-a-global-sand-crisis-83557.

  25. Edwards, Bruce. 2015. "The Insatiable Demand For Sand". Finance & Development 52 (4). http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2015/12/edwards.htm.

  26. "Such Quantities Of Sand". 2015. The Economist. https://www.economist.com/news/asia/21645221-asias-mania-reclaiming-land-sea-spawns-mounting-problems-such-quantities-sand.

  27. "Cambodia Bans Sand Exports Permanently". 2017. BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-40590695.

  28. Owen, David. 2017. "The World Is Running Out Of Sand". The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/29/the-world-is-running-out-of-sand.

  29. Torres, Aurora, Jodi Brandt, Kristen Lear, and Jianguo Liu. 2017. "A Looming Tragedy Of The Sand Commons". Science. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/357/6355/970.full.


91 views
Stay connected!
  • Grey Facebook Icon

The Grassroots Journal is sponsored by:

Web Design by Anjelica Tizon