By Diya Kanduri
Climate change. Pollution. Water scarcity. Deforestation. Greenhouse gas emissions. These are a few of the most pressing environmental issues that society faces -- but is there another one that could be even worse, lying right in front of our eyes? While the world’s attention is turned towards carbon emissions, there is another imminent disaster that keeps creeping closer and closer. It is just as bad as Earth’s rapidly rising temperatures, but often gets overlooked.
This problem has eradicated entire islands and contributed to the deaths of hundreds of people and even more animals. It’s been associated with the spread of diseases, habitat loss, polluted water supplies, and degrading air quality. It’s the reason why the Mekong Delta, in southern Vietnam, is losing one and an half football fields of land to ocean water every day, threatening the livelihoods of more than 20 million people who rely on the delta to survive. It’s all because of one simple, overlooked finite resource. Sand.The world is running out of sand, and the consequences are terrifying.
Why is the world running out of sand and why is it a problem? In order to understand the answers to these questions, let’s first look at the role sand has on our world.
The Demand for Sand
As kids, we used to go to the beach and build sandcastles with buckets and shovels. Then, as high tide came in, we watched as the sea swallowed our castles into the ocean. It’s a perfect metaphor for the present-day world. We live in castles made of sand. While the ocean may not sweep our buildings away, there are still lots of faults. We need sand to survive; we’ve formed
a dependency on it.
It is impossible to talk about the importance of sand without mentioning concrete. Billions of tons of sand are used in the production of concrete each year. Explained simply, concrete is made by combining sand with cement, a binding agent, and water. Concrete is then used in constructing bridges, dams, malls, buildings, housing, and roads. In fact, an estimated 38,000 tons of aggregate, made from sand and gravel, are needed to pave each mile of road. Sand is also used in other major building materials such as glass.
The other uses of sand may surprise you. You may have heard of the silicon chip, which is needed for electronic devices to work. It is actually made from a form of very pure sand. Sand is also used for land reclamation projects as countries import it to create man-made islands or add more land to their territories. For example, Singapore has expanded their land by 50 square miles using imported sand. Many beaches are losing their sand and are forced to mine it from nearby places or import it from areas across the world in a multi-billion dollar industry known as beach nourishment.
This brings up a new point: not all sand on earth can be used for these processes. Deserts have tons of sand, but it is not usable. The right type of sand is only found near areas of water such as beaches, rivers, and oceans. This is because sand eroded by wind, found in deserts, makes the grains round and too fine to be used. However, sand eroded by water makes the grains coarse enough to use. There is such a demand for specific types of sand that Dubai, in the Arabian Peninsula, near a massive desert, is importing sand from Australia.
As populations continue to grow and more people flock to suburbs and cities, there is a greater demand for electronic devices, roads, and housing to be created. In fact, humanity uses 50 billion tons of sand each year. Therefore, it is no surprise that the demand for sand is also growing. So, where does all of this sand come from? The answer lies in a very profitable but environmentally disastrous business-sand mining.
Sand mining happens in many places across the world but the worst of it happens in underdeveloped countries such as India. Miners dredge up rivers and beaches by sucking up sand in machines like giant vacuums. Hundreds of tons of sand can be sucked up in only one night. It’s beginning to cause problems, both environmental and humanitarian.
As sand is mined, sediment lifts from the bottom of riverbeds, causing the water to become cloudy and muddy. This blocks out the sun and kills fish and other aquatic life. People who rely on fishing for food and money also suffer, too. Mining sand lowers the water levels, which causes habitat loss and makes areas more vulnerable to flooding. In the Mekong Delta, floods have caused entire houses to sink into the water. As a result, seawater is starting to enter areas which used to be freshwater, causing more damage to the environment.
Furthermore, mining causes pollutants to enter the water and there have been reports of companies filling sand mining pits with toxic waste, which can spread diseases. It can also seep into groundwater supplies, contaminating water sources. As sand is processed and sorted, it also pollutes the atmosphere and can be harmful to inhale. It’s not just the environment that is taking a toll, many people are, too.
Since the need for sand is only growing, there is now a black market for sand. Much of the world’s sand is mined illegally. These miners work unregulated and cause more environmental damage, often bribing kids to skip school to help them. In addition, they pay other officials to ignore their illegal sand mining sites
Journalists, activists, environmentalists, and even normal people investigating and protesting against sand miners have been beaten and killed before. It is hard to figure out how many people have lost their lives, but some estimate it is in the hundreds and there may be plenty of others that are unaccounted for. People have been killed over sand, it’s a surprising and scary thought.
All of this ignores the worst problem-the world is running out of sand. Sand is not an infinite resource. It is replaced over time due to erosion, but humanity is simply dredging up more sand than can be replaced. Entire islands in the pacific have been completely eradicated, we’ve sucked them all up. We’re losing sand from oceans, rivers, and beaches at a faster rate than ever before in human history. A world without sand sounds like an impossible thought but at the rate humanity is consuming sand, it may be coming closer than we think. With our dependency on sand for everyday items such as silicone chips, building materials, and more, a world without sand is a disturbing thought.
Solutions to Sand Mining
Sand mining is an industry that will never be sustainable. No matter what, dredging sand from riverbeds and lakes will cause untold environmental and humanitarian damage. However, things may not be as bleak as they seem. The best solution is spreading more awareness of the issue. Since sand mining is a relatively unknown problem in many parts of the world, spreading information about it is a simple solution that could help lessen the problem.
In addition, many governments across the world are putting more rules and regulations over sand mining sites in order to make sure that human lives are not impacted, and the environment does not get too degraded. While this may not be a perfect solution, in developed countries, it can certainly help.
Researchers and scientists are also searching for alternate materials to sand. By using by products of industrial processes and trying to recycle glass and concrete, scientists may be able to find more sustainable ways to use sand. In addition, self-healing concrete is currently being developed. Self-healing concrete can repair itself when a crack forms, meaning fewer roads and buildings will have to be replaced after they get damaged. This may also reduce the need for sand mining.
None of these solutions can fully stop the effects of living unsustainable lifestyles. Sand mining is a widespread problem that has caused the loss of many lives, both human and animal. The Earth we used to take for granted now seems fragile and delicate. As climate and environmental crises continue to spread across the world, it is time for every single person to begin taking steps towards sustainability. Now is the first and only chance we will get. It is up to humanity to turn back the sands of time before it’s too late.
Fred Pearce • February 5, et al. “The Hidden Environmental Toll of Mining the World's Sand.” Yale E360, e360.yale.edu/features/the-hidden-environmental-toll-of-mining-the-worlds-sand.
Salopek, Paul. “Inside the Deadly World of India's Sand Mining Mafia.” Environment, National Geographic, 10 Feb. 2021, www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/inside-india-sand-mining-mafia.
“Sand Mining: the Global Environmental Crisis You've Never Heard Of.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 Feb. 2017, www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/feb/27/sand-mining-global-environmental-crisis-never-heard.
“The Mining of Sand, a Non-Renewable Resource.” Sand Extraction: 1. Introduction, www.greenfacts.org/en/sand-extraction/l-2/index.htm.