“Sand is the main material that modern cities are made from. It is to cities what flour is to bread, what cells are to our bodies”, says the journalist Vincent Beiser in his book “The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization.” Even though the sand is hidden from our eyes, it is everywhere around us. We use it not only for making glass, steel, and concrete -the fundament of every modern city -but also for paint, computer chips, and even toothpaste. We use sand so much that, besides water, it is the most relevant resource in the world.
But not every kind of sand is fit for further processing. Based on the size of the grain, sand can be classified into three categories: coarse, medium, and fine. The first one is more suitable for building and forming since it sticks together easily. While coarse sand mostly comes from coasts, rivers, and lakes and has rough edges shaped by water, finer one is smoothed down by the wind in deserts.
Impact of sand mining
Removing sand from coasts and waters is highly problematic, though.
Sand is an essential element for ecosystems and part of biotopes that provide a home to specialized life forms such as aquatic plants, shells, crustaceans, birds, fishes, snails, and many others. They are all part of a complicated biotope sensitive to external influences.
Sand mining is a menace to biodiversity. Extracting sand from marine habitats endangers the species living in and on the sand, bringing imbalance to the food chains. Sea birds, for example, which eat worms and mussels living in the sand, might lose their most important food source. In addition, the sand mining process already leads to the pollution of surface and groundwater, which again has devastating consequences for the marine wildlife and human populations living there.
Moreover, sand is a natural barrier against coastal erosion and natural disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes. Without a natural sand barrier, salt water can seep into the soil resulting in infertile and unstable grounds. Extensive beaches gently break down waves and can reduce their energy to 50% per 4,5 meters. This is vital for people close to water, especially those on islands. If too much sand is taken away, the consequences are collapsing river banks, sinking islands, and disappearing shorelines. This risk only increases with the rising sea levels because of climate change.
The consequences of sand mining can be seen all over the world. Over 75% of all the beaches in the world are already retreating. According to the national geographic, more than 20 Indonesian islands have disappeared into the ocean. The Maldives will be gone by the end of the century. In India, Peru, and Morocco, water pollution, erosion, and biodiversity loss have reached levels one cannot imagine.
In addition, sand mining is not sustainable for the economy as well. While certain local branches like the fish or the tourism industry severely suffer from sand mining, the worst part is that the exporting states like Vietnam, Cambodia, or Malaysia do not even profit from it. At least not in a way one might expect.
Seemingly all of those countries officially stopped exporting sand due to scarcity. Still, there has been evidence that they have played a significant role in supplying Singapore, which needs sand to artificially expand its territory for the growing population, with hundreds of tons of sand.
But if the population of sand exporting countries does not make a profit, who does?
The sand mafia
The answer: The sand mafia. What might sound like a joke at first is the horrible truth. The hunger for sand is insatiable in a world where the construction industry is constantly growing, and consumerism is increasing. Legally there is no way to cover those needs but the black-market steels billions of tons of sand worldwide, and their business is booming.
In India, the sand mafia is the most prominent organization in the country. Around two billion tons of sand are stolen annually, and over 75.000 men work illegally as sand miners. They get paid poorly for the dangerous job. They often have to dive for the sand in rivers like Vasai Creek without equipment besides a bucket. Many drown because they lose orientation in the muddy and polluted waters or because they are so exhausted that the weight of the sand pulls them down again. Whoever tries to stop the sand mafia and their evil doings has to pay, though. Hundreds had to die to keep the illegal sand trade alive.
How we can improve
A way to stop the illegal sand business and save our sand is to look for alternatives. Sand is no infinite resource; our sands are running out, and new sand takes up to 1000 years to form. Recycling glass and concrete is the way to go. Many countries have already started recycling glass bottles, but we must consider the bigger picture. Many companies also began to find ways in which we can make desert sand helpful for building purposes by using binding agents or trying to “grow” bricks from bacteria and mushrooms. There are a lot of creative solutions out there. We need to look into them further.
As individuals, we can start by raising awareness for a global crisis way too few people talk about. Don’t look away and pull your head out of the sand.