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Sand: The Hidden Danger

Eoin is an Undergraduate student studying Geography in the National University of Ireland Galway.


The Danger

Sand is being extracted from beaches and dredged from rivers and oceans at an alarming rate. If nothing is done to tackle this issue, then we are going to have a geopolitical crisis on our hands. Sand is a finite resource. It can take thousands of years for sand to generate, or rather regenerate. Awareness surrounding this issue is scarce. Global policy needs to be implemented more strongly at a Transnational and National level to protect global sand reserves.

Sand is vital for so many areas of life which we take for granted. The walls of the room in which you are reading this were built using sand. Your favourite beer or wine glass was crafted using sand. Roads and motorways which you drive on were built using sand. The construction industry and so much more cannot exist without sand. Global society today consumes 50 billion metric tonnes of sand per annum. That is an astronomical amount of sand.

During 2017, the global construction market was estimated to be worth approximately well over 17,000 billion US dollars. That statistic alone speaks volumes. The construction industry is vital to the world economy. The construction industry would collapse without sand leaving millions unemployed, not to mention causing irreparable damage to the global economy. The fallout would thrust governments and livelihoods into chaos. Sand reserves must be protected to avoid a collapse of said magnitude.

Sand and Sustainability: Finding New Solutions For Environmental Governance of Global Sand Reserves

A report has been carried out by the UN Environment Programme titled, "Sand and Sustainability: Finding New Solutions For Environmental Governance of Global Sand Reserves". Acting Executive Director Joyce Msuya stated in the report, "As this report shows, demand for sand resources is rising. Shifting consumption patterns, growing populations, increasing urbanisation and infrastructure development have increased demand three-fold over the last two decades. We now need 50 billion tonnes per year, an average of 18 kg per person per day.

The problem is that we have been exceeding easily available sand resources at a growing rate for decades. We are spending our sand faster than we can reproduce it responsibly. We now find ourselves in the position where the needs and expectations of our societies cannot be met without improved governance of global sand resources.

Even though these materials are the second largest resources extracted and traded by volume after water, they are one of the least regulated in many regions. Increasingly, sand is being produced through environmentally damaging extractive practices in sensitive terrestrial, riverine and ocean ecosystems. Complex questions on how to deliver on ecosystem and biodiversity conservation goals alongside necessary improvements in transport, infrastructure, housing and living standards are looming.

We need to reconcile relevant global policies and standards with local sand availability, development imperatives and standards and enforcement realities. We need to recognize the interdependence between countries and sectors and learn lessons on how to manage this critical resource sustainably. We need to rethink the relationship between infrastructure and the social and environmental outcomes for which we are striving."

Sand Wars

India's Sand Problem

Sand is a lucrative business, so it is no surprise that it is in high demand. The issue is the supply cannot meet the demand. People who cannot access sand legally, have turned their attention to alternative methods outside of the confines of the law. Sand is being extracted illegally from public beaches, rivers and the seafloor.

India is a prime example of a nation plagued by this issue. Currently undergoing an industrial boom, Sand is in high demand. Since the year 2000 India's use of sand for purposes of construction has skyrocketed by three times the amount it was in said year. The illegal removal of sand has become commonplace in India. Public beaches and other protected areas are disappearing overnight. The police force and politicians alike in India are being forced to turn a blind eye to proceedings out of fear. Sand is becoming so hard to come by that people are now willing to kill for it. Corruption and fear are winning the struggle for sand in India.

In 2017 India imported 56,000 tonnes of sand from Malaysia. Unusual for a Nation which boasts a coastline of 7500km and no shortage of rivers systems. This shipment was the first of its kind to arrive in India and is symbolic of India's lust for sand. The need to import brought the shortage of sand in India into the public gaze for the first time by highlighting the lack of sand in the region. As previously mentioned, the deficit in sand has led to the willingness of people to engage in illegal activity to obtain it. Groups of people have formed to do precisely that, and these groups are known as the "sand mafia" gangs. Gangs in India are willing to resort to violence to get what it is they desire, more sand.

India is not alone in its sand dilemma. The illegal removal of sand around the world is rampant and occurring as you read this article. However, when coupled with the amount of sand that is already being removed by legal means, it exasperates an already pressing concern. It is borderline impossible to write legislation for an issue when you cannot quantify variables due to external factors. Until the extraction of sand by illegal means is clamped down upon, there can be no progress towards finding a solution.


Dredging pertains to removing material from the bottom of the sea and putting it elsewhere. Large ships which are known as "dredgers" are used during the process. Sand is being dredged out at sea to aid the insatiable hunger of our Capitalist consumer society. On the surface, this is a viable option. It is easy to imagine that beneath the oceans on the sea floor lies an endless supply of sand. To an extent, this is true. However, ecosystems are complex and dynamic.

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By removing sand on the sea floor for human consumption, we risk endangering entire eco-systems. Every organism, from the plankton that inhabits the sea floor to the sharks that stalk the oceans, play a role in a finely poised system. In dredging the seafloor and removing sand, we kill every organism that was living in that sand. In so doing a food source has been removed from the region's aquatic food chain. Meaning the natural order of that system has now been affected indefinitely.

According to the UN, human consumption of fish as it stands is at an unsustainably high level. Dredging risks depleting global fish stocks even further by affecting the balance of food chains in aquatic ecosystems.

The removal of sand out at sea does not just affect marine life or benefit our society in the short term economically. It affects our beaches, which can have disastrous effects as beaches are a natural defence against adverse weather conditions.

During the month's of summer, beaches collect sediment to create a protective barrier against the high energy waves created by storm surges out at sea during winter. Sand is integral to this process.

Removing sand from the seafloor creates a hole with a slope. Sand will naturally move down the slope and fill the void. It can result in entire beaches vanishing. This natural reaction is why dredging near shore is such a huge problem.

Dredging In The Maldives

In the Maldives, island communities are falling victim to this process as a result of dredging in the region. Dredging is taking place to create and reclaim lost land as well as aid the development of infrastructure in the area. The livelihoods of the native inhabitants are disappearing one grain of sand at a time with beach erosion a significant issue created by the island's current transient state. There have been extreme cases of beach erosion reported by 57 inhabited islands and a handful of resort islands. The loss of sand at source and changes in the natural sediment balance are two one of the critical causes resulting in the disappearance of the island's beaches.

The Maldives is currently developing several new airports in the island based nation. These airport's development is threatening, damaging and even destroying eco-systems. Kulhudhuffushi island has recently constructed a new airport. The project resulted in vasts quantities of sand being dredged from the ocean floor to allow construction to go ahead. Unfortunately, the sediment was dumped carelessly on the most abundant white clay wetland and mangrove in the Maldives — destroying the Kulhudhuffushi Mangrove and consequently destroying one of the unique, biologically diverse ecosystems the Maldives had to offer with it being home to 8 IUCN red list species.

Ignorance Is Social, Environmental and Economic Degradation

Ignoring the global sand dilemma is no longer an option. Repercussions which manifest themselves from ignoring the issue are affecting and will continue to affect society, the economy and the environment. Sand is so much more than a resource for which human beings to exploit. Sand is a natural coastal defence against the coming sea level rise that is being foreshadowed by many experts as a result of Global Warming. Sand prevents and regulates coastal erosion. Millions of organisms rely on sand for life, and these organisms are essential for sustaining ecological systems. Most if not all, picturesque landscapes entail beautiful sandy beaches which are to be admired not abused.

Sand is a commodity which the majority of human beings are reliant on to build shelters to protect themselves from the elements. Meaning a shortage of sand is more than just an environmental crisis but a social and economic crisis. People will be unemployed and left without any financial means to survive, and people will also continue to inflict pain on one other another to obtain sand, as seen in India if nothing stands to remedy the situation and possibly to an even greater degree now that the stakes are even higher than they were previously. The lack of availability of sand will catalyse the collapse of the construction industry and subsequently the Global Economy, which would plunge society into a depression from which there may not be any coming back.

These are links to sources which helped me write this article. I would highly recommend checking them out if this article interests you. They go into a great deal of depth and deal with the topics mentioned in this article specifically.

Illegal Sand Mining: India’s Biggest Environmental Challenge?

Environmental Changes in the Maldives: Current Issues for Management - By Mohamed Khaleel and Simad Saeed, Ministry of Planning Human Resources and Environment, Ghazee Building Malé, Republic of Maldives

Maldives ecosystems and communities threatened by aviation expansion drive

Sand and Sustainability: Finding new solutions for environmental governance of global sand resources



Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on May 14, 2019:

We could implement legislation calling for only using 'artificial' synthesized sand. We need to use local laws to our advantage.

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