The sand slipped through our fingers. Soon there won't be any more.

For most of us, sand reminds us of holidays, of beaches where we like to daydream, of the fragile castles of our childhood. But we forget that sand is what makes concrete and glass; that it is the main resource of buildings, houses, roads, bridges... Sand is everywhere, even in the circuits of our computers. It is so omnipresent that we forget it. In fact, sand is the most extracted resource on the planet, much more than fossil fuels or biomass. So, by dint of using it without counting the cost in nature's reservoirs, of plundering it without restraint, the unthinkable is happening today: sand is going to run out!
Ahe UN sounded the alarm in a report published May 7, 2019: Overexploitation of sand has disastrous environmental consequences. An alert that comes in the wake of many others, notably that of researchers who had published an in-depth study in the journal Science. Their conclusion is indisputable: the shortage of sand is beginning to be felt and is becoming " an emerging problem with major socio-political, economic and environmental implications ".
Between 1900 and 2010, the overall volume of natural resources used in buildings and transport infrastructure increased 23-fold. Sand and gravel make up the bulk of these primary inputs (79 % or 28.6 gigatonnes per year in 2010) and are the most extracted group of raw materials in the world, surpassing fossil fuels and biomass. In most regions, sand is a common resource, i.e. a resource accessible to all. This freedom is explained by the fact that limiting access to sand can only be done at a high cost. Because of the difficulty of regulating their consumption, common resources are often subject to what is nothing but a real tragedy: people may extract them selfishly, without considering the long-term consequences, which can lead to overexploitation or degradation. Even when sand mining is regulated, it is often exploited and traded illegally, sometimes in the hands of the mafia.
Rapid urban expansion is the main driver of the growing appropriation of sand, as sand is a key ingredient in concrete, asphalt, glass and electronics. As a result, urban development is placing increasing pressure on sand, the shortage of which is causing conflicts around the world. In addition, there are other stresses on sand resulting from changes in the land-sea boundary due to the growth of coastal populations, land scarcity, and increasing threats from climate change and coastal erosion. In another area, hydraulic fracturing is one of many activities that require the use of increasing amounts of sand.

A non-renewable resource

Around the world, it is according to ConsoGlobe 15 billion tons of sand are extracted every year. Almost two tons per human being living on this planet! When we know that to build one kilometre of motorway you need 30,000 tonnes of sand and to build a nuclear power station you need 12 million tonnes, it is easy to imagine that the bill can fly away.
What is less understood is that sand is a non-renewable resource. For a long time sand quarries were exploited, but they soon became insufficient. So they turned to river sand. All over the world, every river became a source of sand. The sand merchants paid little attention to the environmental consequences. Yet they proved to be catastrophic: floods increased because the natural embankment of river beaches had been looted.
Faced with the shortage, they looked for other places to extract sand. The bottom of the sea is full of it. So the sand industry chartered huge specialized vessels capable of sucking up to 400,000 m3 of sand per day. It doesn't matter if these dredgers swallow material that took hundreds of thousands of years to form. It doesn't matter if they disturb to the point of destroying billions of living organisms that are the basis of the food chain for all marine animals. By exploiting underwater sand, we destroy fish and ultimately starve humans. In Indonesia, for example, the resources of thousands of families have been sacrificed on the altar of profit. Indeed, in order to expand, Singapore is building on the sea and has a voracious need for sand. It buys it from neighbouring Indonesia, with irreversible consequences for the region.
This underwater pumping of sand is disrupting the entire ecosystem. By sucking up sand from one place, nature hates a vacuum and hastens to fill it by carrying it from neighbouring areas. This is how the phenomenon of beach erosion is formed. 90 % of the world's beaches are retreating, not only because of rising water levels, but mainly because of the suction of sand. The most beautiful beaches in the world are disappearing, if not entire islands.

Titanic demand

These "small" environmental concerns are of little consequence to the appetites of sandmen and their customers. Build and build again. Always higher, always bigger. Entire cities are being born from sand, in Dubai or elsewhere. The problem is that desert sand is unsuitable for building. Its grains, polished by the wind, are round and offer no roughness. You need sea and river sand. So in the land of sand deserts, sand is imported. To build artificial islands, each one more delirious than the next. Dubai will consume 150 million tons of sand to build its palm-shaped archipelago and plans to buy another 500 million tons to build The World, the string of artificial islands to house its jet set. The sand market is worth billions of dollars and cares little about the planet.
Faced with this titanic demand, shortages are looming and prices are skyrocketing. Sand attracts those who want to make a quick buck and first and foremost, the sand mafias.
In India, sand traffickers are the most numerous. They are considered one of the most powerful and violent organized crime groups. They exploit 2 billion tons of sand illegally. In Morocco, where the demand for construction is exploding, 40 % of sand is stolen from the beaches.

The tragedy of the sandbanks

So how do we prevent what the authors of the Science study announce as a "tragedy of the sandbanks"?
Certainly, media coverage of this issue is increasing. But, in general, the scale of the problem is not yet well appreciated. The issue of sand and its sustainability is rarely discussed in scientific and political research forums. The complexity of the problem is undoubtedly a factor in its explanation. Sand is a common resource, open to all, difficult to regulate; we know little about the true global costs of sand extraction and consumption. The fact remains that demand will continue to increase as urban areas continue to grow and sea levels rise.
Major international agreements such as the Agenda for Sustainable Development 2030 and the Convention on Biological Diversity promote the responsible allocation of natural resources, but there are no international conventions to regulate the extraction, use and trade of sand. As long as national rules are applied lightly, however, adverse effects will continue to be felt.
The authors of the Science believe that the international community should develop a global strategy for the governance of the sands, as well as global and regional budgets for the sands. It is time to treat sand as a resource, along with clean air, biodiversity and other natural resources that nations are seeking to manage for the future.
Header image: Elizaveta Galickaia/Shutterstock

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