International trade in sand is rising and we are finding paradise lost
The next time you vacation you may end up finding paradise lost. International trade in sand is rising as local supply can’t meet the demand. In a very short time sand has become quite profitable. This is the perfect combination in creating a black market. In 2017, sand accounted for 85% of the total weight of mined material. Increased demand means scarcity, scarcity means money and money means criminal activity. Globally, it is a $70 billion industry, with sand selling at up to $90 per cubic yard. This puts it at risk of illegal exploitation, particularly in the developing world.
Why buy expensive sand sourced from licensed mines? It sounds crazy but this is a real thing. From Jamaica to Morocco, India and Indonesia, “sand mafias” are dropping anchor and dredger in remote estuaries, and sucking up entire riverbeds and beaches. Sometimes, dismantling an island or even whole groups of islands. Jamaica’s north coast is the home of Coral Spring, where 500 truckloads of sand disappeared overnight, vanished without a trace. And, when the Canary Islands needed sand to build a new resort, environmentalists say, it imported illegally from the Western Sahara. These “Sand Mafias” protect themselves with officials and police who take payments to look the other way, and fueled by powerful customers in the construction industry who prefer not to ask too many questions as long as their orders come in on time.
In many places reporting on this illegal trade can get you killed. In India, a reporter with a local television station was hit and killed by a sand truck after filming a police officer accepting a bribe that led to sand mining in a crocodile sanctuary. Most people are afraid to complain. Even government officials and police officers are afraid to approach illegal sites. The number of murders, threats and acts of intimidation is in the hundreds.
Why Are We Finding Paradise Lost
The world consumes between 30 to 40 billion tons of building aggregate a year, and half of this is sand. Sand is second only to water as a natural resource extracted by humans. Of the 15 to 20 billion tons used annually, about half goes into concrete. In today’s sand-fueled construction boom China leads the assault, consuming half the world’s supply of concrete. Between 2011 and 2014 China used more concrete than the United States did in the entire twentieth century.
China & India
Global production rose by a quarter in just five years, fueled greatly by the demands of China and India where cement is used for new housing and infrastructure. Aggregate is the main ingredient for roads, and China laid down about 90,720 miles of new highway in a single year. By 2050, two-thirds of humanity will live in urban areas, a product of migration and population growth. The population of India, second only to China, is growing from 1.32 billion to 1.7 billion by the middle of the century. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region, India’s commercial capital, is one of the world’s top 10 mega-cities, with a population of 22 million.
Singapore has more than tripled its population since its independence from Britain in 1963 to 6 million. Singapore is the world’s biggest importer of sand. The tiny country has increased its land size by 20% using sand sourced from Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand, much of it illegally. In 2008, it claimed to have imported only 3 million tons of sand from Malaysia but according to the Malaysian government, the real amount was about 133 million tons, almost all of it smuggled, allegedly. As Singapore grows its neighbor Indonesia shrinks. Illegal sand extraction threatens the existence of some 80 small low-lying Indonesian islands that border Singapore while also devastating the marine ecology.
What Else Will Be Lost
Extraction has increased rapidly over the past four decades with even quicker acceleration since 2000. Urban development is putting strain on the limited accessible deposits. Rocks erode at a slow pace and replenish themselves over thousands of years. Our consumption of sand is well outpacing our understanding of its environmental and social effects. No one knows how much damage is being done to the environment because sand extraction is largely a hidden threat, under-researched, often happening in isolated places, and overshadowed by climate change, plastic pollution and other environmental threats.
Habitats vital to fish, crocodiles, turtles and other forms of riverine and marine life are in jeopardy. So are the coastal communities that rely on sand barriers and coral reefs protection. Sand extraction lowers the water table and pollutes drinking water and stagnant pools created by extraction on land foster malaria. Sand dredging degrades corals, seaweeds and sea-grass meadows. It is a driver of biodiversity loss, threatening species already on the verge of extinction. It ruins habitats, pollutes farmlands and fishing grounds. And, anyone who gets in the way risks intimidation, injury and even death.
Research suggests “plastic sand,” tiny pieces of recycled plastics, can replace 10% of the natural sand in concrete, saving at least 800 million tons of sand per year. Also, concrete structures often use beams that are thicker than necessary. A team at Cambridge University is using computer modeling to size concrete more efficiently and cut waste, but this will not eliminate the continuing need for sand mining. Only addressing the problem with stricter monitoring and enforcement in developing countries can we stop this from becoming an ecological disaster.
To read more about how paradise is being lost in my article So Over Tourism
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