A line in the sand: mining a scarce resource

Illegal sand miners on a river in Alleppey, India. Despite local bans, ‘sand mafias’ still operate in the country, putting the local ecologies at risk Illegal sand miners on a river in Alleppey, India. Despite local bans, ‘sand mafias’ still operate in the country, putting the local ecologies at risk AJP/Shutterstock
09 Sep
Cambodia has stopped selling its sand overseas, a move that has highlighted a global shortage in this oft-overlooked global resource

Responding to pressure from environmental groups, the government of Cambodia has issued a permanent ban on all sand exports from the country. This is mainly in response to fears that selling the resource to Singapore for rapid development is having negative impacts on local coastal communities and ecosystems.

Abundant in seas, deserts and river deltas, sand may seem widely available, but it’s a resource that is even more widely required. Sand is a key ingredient in concrete, asphalt, glass and electronics – making it the foundation of most major urban development projects – while at a national level, sand is increasingly used to replenish a country’s landmass. Singapore is attempting to shore up enough sand to increase its overall size by 20 per cent in just half a century. China’s so-called ‘great wall of sand’ has been created by pouring tons of the material onto shallow reefs in disputed parts of the South China Sea. In other parts of the world, sand is needed to defend against sea level rise – low-lying island nations such as the Maldives are dredging sand from the seabed to fortify their coasts.

‘Sand is one of the most extracted materials after fossil fuels and biomass,’ says Aurora Torres, ecologist and sand mining researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research. ‘Its global extraction has grown strongly over the past four decades, and has accelerated further since the year 2000.’ According to 2014 data from the United Nations Environment Programme, sand accounted for 85 per cent of the total weight of mined material for that year.

Cambodia is not alone in its ban. Indonesia, which previously supplied most of the sand to Singapore, introduced a similar measure ten years ago, with Malaysia taking preventative action ten years before that. In India there are regional bans, although these are often undermined by so-called ‘sand mafias’. Just this month, the US agreed to close its last coastal sand mine, in California, by 2020. In most cases, the sand was being used far more quickly than it was being naturally replenished.

Overall the issues are symptomatic of a looming sand shortage. ‘Sand becoming a scarce resource has been identified as an emerging issue for the global economy and the environment,’ says Torres. ‘Unlike mines of precious minerals, which tend to be territorially compact and limited to certain locations, sand is scattered across environmentally sensitive areas and its extraction can cause extensive shoreline and river erosion.’

This was published in the September 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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