There has probably never been a better time to be in the sand business. The world uses nearly 50bn tons of sand and gravel a year—almost twice as much as a decade ago. No other natural resource is extracted and traded on such an epic scale, bar water.
Demand is greatest in Asia, where cities are growing fast (sand is the biggest ingredient in cement, asphalt and glass). China got through more cement between 2011 and 2013 than America did in the entire 20th century. Since the 1960s Singapore—the world’s largest importer of sand—has expanded its territory by almost a quarter, mainly by dumping it into the sea. The OECD thinks the construction industry’s demand for sand and gravel will double over the next 40 years. Little wonder then that the price of sand is rocketing. In Vietnam in 2017 it quadrupled in just one year.
In the popular imagination, sand is synonymous with limitlessness. In reality it is a scarce commodity, for which builders are now scrabbling. Not just any old grains will do. The United Arab Emirates is carpeted in dunes, but imports sand nonetheless because the kind buffeted by desert winds is too fine to be made into cement. Sand shaped by water is coarser and so binds better. Extraction from coastlines and rivers is therefore surging. But according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Asians are scooping up sand faster than it can naturally replenish itself. In Indonesia some two dozen small islands have vanished since 2005. Vietnam expects to run out of sand this year.
All this has an environmental cost. Removing sand from riverbeds deprives fish of places to live, feed and spawn. It is thought to have contributed to the extinction of the Yangzi river dolphin. Moreover, according to WWF, a conservation group, as much as 90% of the sediment that once flowed through the Mekong, Yangzi and Ganges rivers is trapped behind dams or purloined by miners, thereby robbing their deltas both of the nutrients that make them fecund and of the replenishment that counters coastal erosion. As sea levels rise with climate change, saltwater is surging up rivers in Australia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, among other places, and crop yields are falling in the areas affected. Vietnam’s agriculture ministry has warned that seawater may travel as far as 110km up the Mekong this winter. The last time that happened, in 2016, 1,600 square kilometers of land were ruined, resulting in losses of $237m. Locals have already reported seeing dead fish floating on the water.
Curbing sand-mining is difficult because so much of it is unregulated. Only about two-fifths of the sand extracted worldwide every year is thought to be traded legally, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. In Shanghai miners on the Yangzi evade the authorities by hacking transponders, which broadcast the positions of ships, and cloning their co-ordinates. It is preferable, of course, to co-opt officials. Ministers in several state governments in India have been accused of abetting or protecting illegal sand-mining.
Scientists are experimenting with alternatives to concrete and cement. Architects are trying to find ways to use such materials more sparingly. Even the odd government is taking action. In 2018, Maharashtra passed regulations requiring contractors to use plastic waste as filler when building or repairing roads. Singapore is creating a new patch of land by draining it of water rather than piling it with sand. Kiran Pereira of SandStories.org, which promotes awareness of the issue, says “there are plenty of solutions” if only governments would find the will to implement them. Time to pull heads from the sand.