Sand is not just for beaches — it is a core ingredient in cement, concrete, glass, silicon chips, solar panels and a variety of other products. It comes from rocks that take centuries to erode into fine particles, and we are running out of it more quickly than we can afford.
The world is facing a sand shortage, which has prompted violent black market gangs to mine large amounts from riverbeds and beaches, since it is the only kind used in construction. Desert sand is almost useless, according to an author who is working on a book on the matter.
“Sand is the essential ingredient that makes modern life possible. And we are starting to run out,” wrote The New York Times journalist Vince Beiser. “That’s mainly because the number and size of cities is exploding, especially in the developing world. Every year there are more people on the planet, and every year more of them move to cities. Since 1950, the world’s urban population has ballooned to over 3.9 billion from 746 million.”
To put things into perspective, he said China used more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the U.S. used in the entire 20th century.
“Usable sand is a finite resource… To get the sand we need, we are stripping riverbeds, floodplains and beaches,” he added. “In places where onshore sources have been exhausted, sand miners are turning to the seas.”
The $70 billion industry, supported by multinational companies around the world, use impoverished villagers to dig up the sand.
Needless to say, this is terrible for the environment and the ecosystem.
In India, river sand mining is killing countless fish and birds while in Indonesia, some two dozen small islands have reportedly disappeared since 2005 because of the growing business.
“It once seemed as if the planet had such boundless supplies of oil, water, trees and land that we didn’t need to worry about them,” Beiser concluded. “But of course, we’re learning the hard way that none of those things are infinite, and the price we’ve paid so far for using them is going up fast.”
The global black market for sand is a violent business that has seen numerous activists in South Asia killed for confronting the issue.
The United Nations has also showed concern over the illegal mining, but nothing seems to have been done to tackle the situation.