Scarce Sand’s Soaring Demand

A Journal of People report


Sand, the world’s most consumed raw material after water and an essential ingredient to people’s everyday lives, is slipping through human fingers, warn scientists warn.

Sand may become a scarce resource due to high demand, they say.

“We just think that sand is everywhere. We never thought we would run out of sand, but it is starting in some places,” a climate scientist with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Pascal Peduzzi said during a webinar hosted by the Chatham House think tank.

“It is about anticipating what can happen in the next decade or so because if we don’t look forward, if we don’t anticipate, we will have massive problems about sand supply but also about land planning,” he added.

Peduzzi, who is the director of UNEP’s Global Resource Information Database in Geneva, Switzerland, described the global governance of sand resources as “the elephant in the room.”

“Is it time for panicking? Well, that will certainly not help, but it is time to take a look and change our perception about sand,” he said as quoted by CNBC.

According to Peduzzi, sand use could only be measured indirectly via a “very, very good” correlation between the use of sand and cement.

The UN estimates that 4.1 billion tons of cement is produced every year, driven primarily by China, which accounts for almost 60 percent of today’s sand-fueled construction boom.

Statistics show that it takes ten tons of sand to produce every ton of cement. This means that, for construction alone, the world consumes roughly 40 to 50 billion tons of sand on an annual basis. The amount is enough to build a wall 27 meters high by 27 meters wide that wraps around the planet every year.

The global rate of sand use has tripled over the last two decades, partially due to surging urbanization and industrialization. It far exceeds the natural rate at which sand is being replenished by the weathering of rocks by wind and water.

UNEP has previously warned of thriving “sand mafias,” saying that groups consisting of builders, dealers and businessmen are known to be operating in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Kenya and Sierra Leone.

It is no exaggeration to say that fine sand and coarser materials – the medium-to-coarse-grained pebbles, gravel and rock fragments used in construction – are the building blocks of the modern world. When bound with cement, sand becomes concrete; when mixed with bitumen, it becomes asphalt; and when heated, it becomes glass. Without sand, we would have no highways, high-rises or high-speed trains. Yet sand – which is used here as shorthand for sand, gravel and crushed rock together – is a resource that is both abundant and finite.

In global terms, it is abundant, especially when compared with many other raw materials, albeit often not available close to where it is needed. It is finite in that the rate at which we are using it far exceeds the natural rate at which it is being replenished by the weathering of rocks by wind and water.

Industrialization, population growth and urbanization have fuelled explosive growth in the demand for sand. Precise data on sand extraction are hard to come by and the lack of data compounds the challenge of managing the resource sustainably.

The UN estimate of overall extraction of sand is driven primarily by construction sector demand. That equates to 18 kilograms of sand each day for every person on the planet and signals how strategically important these resources are for future sustainable development.

Post-COVID-19 recovery investment in infrastructure, digital technologies, tourism and other economic activities are dependent on sand resources.

Current efforts to improve the management of sand resources at local, national and global levels are uneven. This is partly due to unique geological features and geography, but also differences in local manifestations of the ‘sand challenge’, national and regional demand for sand resources, as well as capacities to enforce or implement best practice assessment procedures, extractive practices, environmental management and restoration requirements.

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