What sand got to do with a sustainable future

What sand got to do with a sustainable future

by Mailin Zschage -
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When we think of sand, we tend most likely to have in mind the picture of a nice summer vacation at the beach. But little did we know that sand plays an essential role in our lives. Did you know that sand is an essential commodity in our everyday life? You can find it in chemical production, water filtration, fracking and the production of glass. It is everywhere, marking the second most consumed raw material, right after water. If the German proverb “wie Sand am Meer” (whose English equivalent would be “a ten a penny”) might make it sound like sand is an inexhaustible source of commodity, the truth is, that we are facing a sand shortage worldwide. In fact, the demand for sand in the construction industry exceeds the supply.  As a result, many countries import sand from abroad, which not only affect people economically but also harms nature. Over the last two decades, the use of sand, gravel and aggregates has tripled, now reaching between 40 to 50 tons per year. Thus, climate scientists warn that this shortage can become one of the greatest sustainability challenges of the century.

Compared to other raw materials, the global sand business is far less transparent and unfortunately often handled illegally. The so-called sand mafia operates in countries all over the world, but they are often more active in India. A report by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People summarizes the incidents of sand mining which led to death and violent incidents in East India between April 2022 and February 2023. Overall, not only elderly workers were killed in sand mine pits but there was also a 7-years old child drowning in a sand mine pit in Kiul river and policemen were attacked by illegal miners. Thus, not only does nature suffer from the effects of sand mining, but it also harms people in different ways. After all, poor working conditions and child labor occur pretty frequently in this field.

Even countries like Saudi Arabia suffer from a shortage of sand. This might sound counterintuitive, as the country inhibits a great part of Rub' al Khali, the world’s biggest sandy desert. However, desert sand is almost worthless for the construction industry. The sand grains are way smoother than the grippy sand particles found in riverbeds, seabeds or beaches. Thus, desert sand is not suitable for the construction of stable concrete. This is why for the construction of the world’s tallest building Burj Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates, imported sand from Canada and Australia. That might sound astonishing because the city of Dubai lies directly in the Arabian desert and is surrounded by sand.

Although sand mining habitats are destroyed, rivers are polluted and beaches that are already endangered by the rising sea levels are eroded. These are only a few examples of how sand mining harms nature. Many effects are not yet foreseeable. Thus, it is important to act now.

Only in 2019 did governments within the UN recognize the danger that emanates from the sand crisis and finally placed this issue on their political agenda. In 2022 the UN proposed 

“10 strategic recommendations to avert a crisis” concerning the shortage of sand and its effects on sustainability. You can find an overview of those ten recommendations in the table below. Overall, the recommendations are addressed to the government but industry, the private sector, as well as civil society also play an essential role in their implementation. The next years will show if those recommendations will efficiently be implemented and whether they will help against the sand shortage.

Source: full report of United Nations Environment Programme

To learn more about why the world is running out of sand, watch the following video of CNBC:



Meredith, Sam. 2021, March 5. “A sand shortage? The world is running out of a crucial — but under-appreciated — commodity.” CNBC. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/05/sand-shortage-the-world-is-running-out-of-a-crucial-commodity.html#:~:text=Sand%20is%20the%20primary%20substance,of%20silicon%20chips%20uses%20sand.

SANDRP. n.d. "Sand Mining Deaths & Violence in East India between April 2022 and February 2023." SANDRP: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://sandrp.files.wordpress.com/2023/03/2023-sand-mining-death-violence-in-east-india.pdf.

Niranjan, Ajit . 2021, May 17. "Sand-Krise: Mafia profitiert von drohendem Sandmangel." DW.com. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://www.dw.com/de/sand-krise-mafia-profitiert-von-drohendem-sandmangel-wichtigster-baustoff-l%C3%B6sungen-korruption/a-57178419.

UN environment program: GRID-Geneva. n.d. "Global Sand Observatory Initiative: Project description." Retrieved March 13, 2023, from https://unepgrid.ch/en/activity/sand.