Pity the environment as sand mafia denudes beaches

Construction is the primary user of the world’s rapidly diminishing supply of sand. But sand is also used in the manufacture of a host of products ranging from toothpaste to cell phone screens.

Crews of ‘sand mafia’ running illegal sand-winning operations in various parts of the world are bringing us ever closer to war.

Sand? you ask.

Sand is the second-most traded raw material in the world after water. That’s not a guess. All sorts of authoritative bodies, including the United Nations, tell us so.

Sand is used in the construction industry worldwide. And with the rapid urbanisation still taking place in most parts of the world, the construction industry is booming.

Worldwide, we’re talking about 40 to 50 billion tons of sand a year being removed from the environment. It’s a primary substance used in civil engineering projects such as road and bridge building and in diverse applications that include land regeneration.

Apart from construction, sand is used in the manufacture of a host of products such as glass, water filtration systems, cosmetics, toothpaste and even cell phone screens.  

We’re all aware that the next world war could take place over water supplies. Threats of war have been made over Ethiopia’s determination to curtail the flow of the Nile to fill the gargantuan Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Egypt has repeatedly warned that Ethiopia’s intransigence over offers of international mediation to arrive at a comprise could lead to military intervention. The economies of both Egypt and Sudan rely heavily on water drawn from the Nile.

But who in their right mind would go to war over sand?

Therein lies the rub.

Sand is disappearing rapidly

No one, least of all the authorities, took much notice that one of our seemingly limitless natural commodities was disappearing so rapidly that it made Japan’s bullet train look like it was powered by sail.

China, India, the Middle East and Singapore are vociferous consumers of building sand, importing the commodity in mind-blowing volumes. Even Germany, the cerebral powerhouse that is as methodical as it is precise, is short of sand.

To meet the demand, ‘sand mafia’ operators are denuding stretches of coastline in Africa and elsewhere right down to bedrock. Countries such as Morocco, Kenya and Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Vietnam are the most seriously affected. Environmental activists are being murdered or threatened by criminal elements.

Beaches devoid of sand are environmental disasters that are becoming increasingly common. Along these coastlines, the sea rushes in at high tide to fill the gap. Seawater races further inland where it destroys valuable arable land farmed for centuries by local inhabitants.

Sand and the United Nations

It was only in 2019 that the United Nations brought the looming environmental challenge to the world’s attention. That august body published a discussion document under the heading Sand and sustainability: finding new solutions for environmental governance of global sand resources.

The preamble to the lengthy report that you can read here states that ‘these materials (sand and gravel) cannot be produced from our terrestrial, riverine and marine environments in quantities needed to meet the demand for a world of 10 billion people without effective policy, planning, regulation and management.

‘Such actions remain largely unaddressed by decision-makers in public or private sectors. It is time to challenge the paradigm of infinite sand resources through constructive dialogue and solution-finding. This report aims to be the starting point from which a productive global conversation on sand extraction can begin.’

So what are the options?

Well, there’s been a relatively slow uptake in the use of recycled concrete but that practice is slowly gaining ground.

How about using desert sand for construction?

That’s no good because it lacks the cohesion required for use as an aggregate in concrete.

Two innovations to help avert sand disaster

A process developed by a German company may result in desert sand becoming usable in the construction industry. That’s a start.

But another innovation that makes use of ‘tragic plastic’ – plastic that is currently not suitable for recycling – is on the threshold of making a vital contribution to the circular economy.

RESIN8™ is a replacement for aggregates (including sand). All types of mixed and dirty remediated plastic waste that currently gets discarded to dump sites can be processed into a unique concrete modifier using a proprietary process developed by Donald Thomson in Costa Rica.

Full-scale RESIN8™ processing plants under the banner of the Centre for Regenerative Design and Collaboration (CRDC) are planned for Costa Rica and the United States. Subsidiary companies have been set up in South Africa, Mexico, UK, Australia and New Zealand.  Read more about this development here.

The concrete modifier replaces scarce building sand in the manufacture of concrete building blocks, pavers, kerbing, piping and thrown concrete.

The disaster of sand smuggling

Of course, these innovations address the symptoms and not the cause of this looming environmental disaster. One report states that climate scientists describe the results of sand smuggling as ‘one of the greatest sustainability challenges of the 21st century’.

Right now it seems that the issue of sand depredation remains way down on the list of priorities globally. The problem is becoming more acute week by week and is likely to accelerate in importance as the world emerges from its lengthy lockdown hiatus.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


2 Responses

  1. Tragic. Natural resources are being widely overused and the earth will be devoid of many irresplaceable resources. Forests spring to mind, but sand I had not thought of until I read your article, Blake. More cause for depression.

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