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Neat to know ~ Feature of the week

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The Sand Crisis

“Time is like a handful of sand; the tighter you grasp it, the faster it runs through your fingers.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Washed sand stockpiles, Scotland, 2010

Photo: Peter Craven, CC BY 2.0

2021-05-22

Have you ever wondered what the structures that make up our cities and towns are made of?  You might say, “Concrete.”  But what is concrete made of?  Believe it or not, the main ingredient that is needed to make concrete is sand.  Yes, this seemingly unremarkable substance, which exists in huge quantities all over the planet, is the material we depend upon to build our lives – everything from houses to apartment blocks, shopping malls to high-rise office buildings, parking lots to roads, highways, and bridges. 

Cities are growing at a rate never before seen in our history, and thus, the demand for more structures and transportation routes is increasing.  As a result, the need for sand is going up too.  You might think that there is practically nothing else on this earth that is as commonly found as sand.  But not just any sand is used for construction.  The sand found in the vast deserts of the world, for example, is largely unusable.  Its individual grains are smooth and rounded and do not stick together to make strong, durable concrete.  Construction sand needs to consist of grains that have tiny edges that can lock together.  Such sand is really only found on beaches or in river- and lakebeds.  The problem is that so much of this sand has already been excavated.   One day, it will be gone.  And then what?

Developing Cities

People all over the world are leaving their rural homes and moving into cities.  This is especially prevalent in developing countries in South and Central America, Asia, and Africa, where urban centers are expanding at dizzying speeds.  Populations in cities are more than four times higher now than 70 years ago.  Projections from the United Nations show that some 2.5 billion more people will inhabit cities within the next 30 years.  For a shocking comparison: that is like eight brand new New York Cities popping up every year!  Now imagine all the construction that will be necessary to accommodate these ballooning urban areas.   Experts say that about 3,000 tons of sand go into the structure of just one building.  Once you consider the huge number of new constructions transforming landscapes around the world, you can start to understand why sand supplies are steadily dwindling.

Other Uses of Sand

Sand is not only used in construction.  It is also a primary component in the manufacture of glass.  Think about all the places we need glass: windows, car windshields, screens on all our digital devices, the computer chips within smart phones, solar panels, just to name a few.  Glass is also found in all high-tech  electronic hardware.  The demand for sand in the making of glass is mind-boggling. 

And that’s not all.  Did you know that in some parts of the world, humans are creating artificial land in order to expand areas for development?  Gigantic ships specially designed to scrape up and remove sand from the ocean floor are busier than ever collecting this resource by the millions of tons.  The sand is then used to extend coastlines.   Off of Dubai’s shores, islands in the shape of gigantic palm trees have been created.  In Singapore, where space is running out for the population of over five million, additional land is being generated using sand that is brought in from other parts of the world.  The consequences of dredging up sand from sea floors is devastating to the fragile ecosystems beneath the ocean.  Coral reefs from the coasts of Florida to the Persian Gulf are being destroyed beyond repair.  Also, when clouds of sand and dust billow up as a result of the dredging operations, waters are polluted, killing plants and animals.

Sand Stats

– Every year, an estimated 40-50 billion tons of sand are used, just for construction.  Many more tons are used in the making of glass and in the building up of artificial lands.  After water, sand is the most heavily used natural resource on Earth.

– The demand for sand is skyrocketing, particularly in countries where cities are growing most rapidly.  In the last ten years, China has used more sand than the U.S. used over the course of the whole 20th century.  Since 2000, the building frenzy in India has caused that country to triple its consumption of sand.  And in the United Arab Emirates, cities like Dubai are having sand shipped over from thousands of miles away in Australia, because the desert surrounding the UAE’s cities does not have the right kind of sand needed for construction.

– Waterways and shorelines in China and India are among the areas most severely affected by intense sand mining.  Sand is being used up far faster than it can be made by natural processes, which involve the gradual wearing down of rock by natural forces like water or wind.

The Fight Over Sand

Because there is such a need for sand, a black market has opened up.  Criminal groups are popping up in many places, and they are extracting sand illegally from anywhere they can find it.  River beds, forests, even farm land, are being shredded and stripped bare as these groups try to profit off of the ever more precious resource.

Nature is not the only thing that has been abused in the race to extract sand.  In some places in Central and South America, Asia, and Africa, children are forced to work in sand mines and are often badly mistreated. Police and lawmakers are frequently in on the profiteering.  Gangs pay them large sums of money to turn a blind eye to the abuses of children.

There has been lots of violence in countries such as Kenya, India, and Indonesia as so-called “sand mafias” fight, injure, and kill their rivals in the sand market.  The gangs involved are comprised of people at various levels of the sand trade, including builders and dealers.  UNEP – the United Nations Environmental Program – has reported that these groups have been flourishing in recent years.  Many people who have tried to speak up for those being victimized by the sand trade have been killed.

The Environmental Impact

The damage caused by humans’ desperate scramble to extract as much sand from the Earth as possible has far-reaching effects on the environment.  When people try to dredge up sand from the ocean floor, they damage delicate ecosystems.  For example, in several regions, coral reefs have been harmed.  Also, waters are heavily polluted by the mining of sand from under the sea.  This wreaks havoc on the habitats of aquatic plants and animals.  Similarly, when sand is dug up from riverbeds, whole ecosystems are annihilated.

Coastal areas are also destroyed because of sand extraction and because of the building up of artificial lands.  Most wetlands along shorelines in China have been decimated.   In turn, innumerable marine animals and birds that depend on those wetlands have simply vanished.

No Easy Answers

The world is starting to wake up to the reality that sand, which underpins so many essential aspects of human life, is disappearing.  Climate scientists are calling it one of the top environmental crises of our time because people’s use of sand has become unsustainable.  In the quest to maintain the breakneck speed of urban construction, as well as to fuel our insatiable hunger for technologies that also require mountains of sand to produce, people are getting increasingly desperate to scrape up every last grain, no matter the environmental or the human cost.  But some scientists are hard at work exploring how to use other materials in place of sand.  Shredded plastics and rubber, ground-up palm shells, hemp, and rice husks are being looked at as possible alternatives.  Another important area of research involves the recycling of concrete and other building materials.

But many people are saying that it isn’t just sand that is the problem.  Rather, it is humanity’s unrestrained use of the planet’s resources in general that must be addressed.  Journalist Vince Beiser, who wrote The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How it Transformed Civilization, says, “We’ve got to find ways to build cities that not only use less sand, but that use less of everything across the board.  We’ve just got to find ways to live our lives more sustainably.”  In other words, finding substitutes for sand in order to be able to continue with our greedy, wasteful ways, will do nothing more than put a band aid on a much bigger, deeper problem, which – if gone unaddressed – will irreversibly change the planet.

Sources: Beiser, Vince, BBC, “Why the world is running out of sand,” https://www.bbc.com/running-out-of-sand, November 17, 2019; Meredith, Sam, CNBC, “A sand shortage? The world is running out of a crucial – but under-appreciated – commodity,” https://www.cnbc.com/sand-shortage.html, March 5, 2021; Altman, Andy, CNET, “The world is running out of sand, and you need to care,” https://www.cnet.com/running-out-of-sand/, December 3, 2020.