Sand is one of our most important raw materials. Yet in many regions, its extraction is virtually unregulated; sand mafia organizations don’t even shy away from violence when pursuing illegal extraction. To protect coasts, rivers, people and oceans, uniform sustainability rules are needed worldwide for the extraction, trade and use of sand.
After water, sand is the world’s most frequently traded raw material. Without sand, nothing works – not in construction, nor in the automotive, cosmetics or detergent industries. Without sand there would be no concrete, asphalt or glass. It is used to produce silicon for the chips in cell phones. Buildings in particular require huge quantities of sand: A medium-sized single-family home requires 200 tons of sand, each kilometer of highway consumes an average of 30,000 tons, and each nuclear power plant 12 million tons. Annual global consumption is up to 50 billion tons. The lead consumers are China, India and the USA. Measured by their population, however, city-states such as Singapore or individual Gulf states consume the most.
Infinite use of a finite raw material
None of this would be a problem if there were enough suitable sand. But sand is already a scarce commodity. This is because the vast quantities of sand in the deserts are deceptive: Just as salty water from the oceans is useless for drinking water supplies, desert sand is unsuitable as a building material because the grains are too fine. For construction, medium-grained and coarse sand with a jagged, angular surface, as formed by water, is needed. This is the only type with the necessary surface structure to make concrete stable. This sand is found everywhere, in riverbeds and lakes, on beaches, at the bottom of the sea and in underground deposits, but not in the desert – and not always where it is most in demand.
Gulf states import large quantities of sand from Canada and Australia for their skyscrapers. At the same time, huge quantities are dredged from the bottom of the Persian Gulf; for example, around 150 million tons were extracted for the man-made Palm Islands in Dubai. The 500 million tons of sand that Singapore has needed since the 1960s to expand its land area with artificial islands were imported primarily from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. Since these countries temporarily banned sand exports, the sand was mined and smuggled illegally – which continues to be the case. In many emerging and developing countries, bans remain virtually ineffective as long as rich countries are willing to pay enormous sums for something that is lying around for free on their own beaches.
Sand mafia: Illegal mining and trade
Global trade in sand was worth $4.5 billion in 2017, with annual growth of 5.5 percent. The Global Aggregates Information Network industry association projects total annual demand for sand and aggregates to increase to 60 billion tons by 2030. Yet the global sand business is largely opaque. In many places, mining and trading are in the hands of a so-called "sand mafia" that doesn’t care about legal regulations or environmental destruction and the population affected by it. They also do not shy away from child labor, and are rarely held accountable for it.
In Morocco, half of the sand needed each year – about 14 million tons – comes from illegal sand extraction on the coast. In many places, sand smugglers have turned beaches into rocky landscapes. As a result, coastal residents are increasingly vulnerable to tides and storms. The sand from the beaches is used to build hotels, holiday homes, roads and tourist infrastructure. By decree, in November 2017 the government sought to reinforce a law prohibiting the extraction of coastal dune sand in order to preserve the biological and ecological balance of the coasts. Despite the threat of several years' imprisonment, the law is proving largely ineffective. The irony of it all: Predatory mining is destroying beaches, which are one of the country's main tourist attractions.
In India, the sand mafia, tolerated by politicians and administrators, illegally mines sandbars and does not shy away from violence in the process. Journalists who report on the criminal business are regularly threatened and – in the case of Jagendra Singh – killed. In 2015, the journalist accused a local minister of being responsible for illegal sand mining in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Singh was attacked with gasoline and burned alive.
The largest sand resources are found in rivers and oceans. Rivers transport around 20 billion tons of sand to the coasts every year. Yet only half of the sand from the mountains reaches the sea; the other half is mined directly from river banks or riverbeds or held back by dams. Asia's major rivers are systematically dredged, with far-reaching consequences for biological diversity and ecosystems in the water and on land. When sand is sucked from the seabed and dredged from coasts, microorganisms and animals are killed, habitats are destroyed, and currents are altered. This threatens the livelihoods of people who live off the sea. The more sand that is sucked from the seabed, the more sand slides off coasts and beaches. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates, three out of four beaches are disappearing. This is a loss of land that is affecting poor populations in many places.
Approaches to sustainable sand management
Despite these threatening developments and multiple grievances, the environmental and social consequences of sand management were not a concern for the international community until recently. The 2015 UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development makes no mention of sand as a raw material. It was not until the UNEP Sand and Sustainability report, published in 2019, that the issue entered the international political agenda. It points out that the demand for sand has tripled in the last 20 years due to changing consumption patterns, population growth, increasing urbanization and infrastructure development, and seeks answers to the various challenges.
The report identifies key issues for sustainable management of the world's sand resources. To avoid damage to river, beach and marine ecosystems, and thus societal risks at sand mining sites, the authors recommend reducing sand and gravel consumption through more efficient infrastructure and construction planning, and using recycled and alternative building materials where possible, such as renewable building materials, which have been the subject of research for some time. At the same time, existing standards and best practices, as applied to other raw materials, should be adapted for national circumstances and enforced. This would at least curb the irresponsible and illegal extraction of sand. Investment is also needed in the measurement, monitoring and planning of sand extraction and consumption. Finally, the fragmented and in many places highly informal sand industry needs to commit to common sustainability rules. This requires a dialogue based on transparency and accountability between the key players and stakeholders in the sand value chain.