Murder, famine, destruction: Sand mining’s global impact

Sand: it’s coarse, it’s rough and it’s disappearing everywhere.

It may come as a surprise to many that sand serves as much more than just the grounds at beaches and deserts across the globe. In reality, sand is all around us, acting as the building blocks of civilization itself literally.

Sand is the second most consumed natural resource on Earth, only behind water — not even fossil fuels are as sought-after as sand. Necessary for the production of concrete, glass and silicon chips, sand invisibly defines the world around us. The foundation keeping your home in place, the windows lighting your house, the roads you drive and every computer you’ve ever owned all require sand to exist.

Even as sand is mined globally at a rate of 50 million metric tons per year, this resource was largely taken for granted until the last decade.

“It’s only pretty recently that people started to think of sand as an important natural resource like wheat, iron or oil,” said Vince Beiser, journalist and author of “The World in a Grain.” “People have always assumed there’s an infinite amount of sand out there.”

But an infinite amount there is not. While we already use massive amounts of sand every year, by 2050, the U.N. expects the global population to rise from 7.9 billion people to around 9.8 billion. Over two-thirds of those people are expected to live in urban areas, only exacerbating the loss of the non-renewable resource.

Even though deserts comprise about one-third of Earth’s land surface, they’re not particularly useful for the construction industry. Eroded by wind, desert sand particles are too smooth to bind in concrete. For most industrial purposes, we need sand eroded by water. To get that, companies strip coastlines, dig up long gone bodies of water and dredge sea and river beds.

All of these options can have an immense impact on the surrounding environment.

“Sand mining is a natural resource exploitation,” said Mette Bendixen, physical geography professor at McGill University, “and all resource exploitation comes with consequences for the environment. That’s just how it is.”

For example, as sand is extracted from riverbeds, the river collects sand from elsewhere to make up for losses. Most often, this replenishment comes from riverbanks, eroding away the surrounding land.

Take the Mekong Delta in Vietnam for example. Home to over 21 million Vietnamese, the region creates over half of Vietnam’s entire supply of rice, also providing immensely for surrounding countries.

At the same time, the delta is shrinking at the rate of a football field every day.

“We stand to lose a huge amount of incredibly important farmland that provides food for hundreds of millions of people to live on,” Beiser said.

This issue is not restricted to the Mekong Delta though – across the globe, and primarily in the developing world, the stability of waters are being challenged by sand mining.

“Take any big city in Africa, go to Google Earth, find a random road, and follow it outside the city,” Bendixen said. “You can easily see that they’re mining sand everywhere.”

In many parts of the globe, “sand mafias” have cropped up to meet construction growth spurred by population growth. Through violence, intimidation and corruption, these organizations are able to skirt the region’s restrictions on mining operations, causing untold damage with impunity.

While sand mafias exist around the world, they are no more prevalent than in India. At least 22 of India’s 28 states have at least one sand mafia, and according to one report, at least 193 people have died due to Illegal sand mining in India alone between January 2019 and mid-November 2020. Among the slain are civilians, journalists, activists and government officials.

“They have changed the entire course of rivers,” said Sumaira Abdulali, environmentalist and founder of Awaaz Foundation. “They have decimated the fishing industry in many parts of the river. There’s been major landslides and floods directly as a result of sand mining. They’ve deepened the course of the rivers. They’ve done everything. They’ve made many rivers into patches – they can’t even really be called rivers anymore because they’ve changed so much.”

Unsustainable sand mining isn’t only happening halfway across the globe, though; the United States needs concrete, too. And because regulations on mining are set at the state and county level, many areas of the U.S. have been hit much harder than others.

In Houston, studies have suggested that mining along the San Jacinto River has increased the severity of flooding in the surrounding areas. The last beachfront mine in the States only closed last year. And in Long Island, investigators have accused mining companies of contaminating the area’s drinking water with metals like manganese and iron.

So, what can we do about it? While no viable alternative to sand-based concrete currently exists, pre-existing concrete can be recycled and stone can be crushed in order to meet some of the demand for sand.

As climate change melts arctic ice caps, Greenland has increasingly been flooded not just with water, but with sediment. As Greenland rivers hold about ten percent of the planet’s river sand, extraction done there may also meet some of the global demand in a less damaging way.

Ultimately though, Beiser believes that the issue extends far beyond sand.

“The only long-term sustainable solution is to reframe the question,” he said. “The question isn’t so much ‘how can we use sand?’ It’s ‘how can we use less of everything?’ Our whole way of life is just unsustainable.”