Sand Mining Is Wreaking Havoc Around the World

Sand is an essential component in construction, and mining it is causing ecological damage, fueling corruption, and threatening economic growth.

A crucial ingredient in concrete, glass, and computer chips, sand is a pillar of the global economy.

But sand mining is unsustainable, wreaking costly and potentially deadly environmental damage, fueling corruption, and risking shortages that could slow growth, according to study published this week in the journal Science.

“Urbanization, especially in Asia, is booming. They need lots of sand for construction. There are a lot of things that use sand we don’t know about. Even energy development, fracking, needs sand,” said Jianguo "Jack" Liu, a study co-author and director of Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.  “Something that’s getting larger and larger in the end could become depleted everywhere. Then we have another resource that is in huge demand but the supply will become more limited.”

Entitled "A Looming Tragedy of the Sand Commons,” the study found that sand miners extracted at least 11 billion tons for construction in 2010 alone. In the US, the nearly $9 billion sand industry has grown by 24 percent in the last five years. The international sand trade has grown sixfold in the last quarter century.

But a host of problems have sprouted as the industry has evolved.

Sand mining alters coastlines and waterways where conditions are already growing unpredictable due to climate change, kills flora and fauna, fuels irresponsible building, and funds criminal organizations. Gangs run the trade in India and Italy. Sand has also worsened diplomatic tensions. Singapore has clashed with Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaysia to maintain vital sand imports fueling the city-state’s building boom.

“Sand has an impact on the environment, an impact of biodiversity, social issues, social unrest,” Liu said, adding that he and his fellow researchers used “telecoupling,” or a mode of research that examines causes and effects over large distances, time periods, different fields, and diverse economic sectors. “They are connected.”

Liu and his colleagues said their findings demonstrate why researchers and policymakers need to look more closely at sand in order to develop rules to govern the commodity.

“As long as national regulations are lightly enforced, harmful effects will continue to occur,” they write in an editorial for The Conversation. “We believe that the international community needs to develop a global strategy for sand governance, along with global and regional sand budgets. It is time to treat sand like a resource, on a par with clean air, biodiversity, and other natural endowments that nations seek to manage for the future.”

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Liu didn’t see a good replacement for sand.

“A substitute could be breaking stones into sand,” he said. “But that has consequences. You need energy to do that. When you use energy, you [emit] carbon dioxide. You avoid one problem to create another problem.”

He thought recycling sand, developing new building methods that require less of the stuff, better housing policies that curb sand-gobbling construction, and other measures could help humankind avoid a sand crisis in the future.

“We don’t say. ‘Don’t use sand,” Liu said. “Reduce the use of sand without affecting human wellbeing.”

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