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The World Is Running Out of Sand

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Time is running out for one of the world's most precious resources—sand.

Time is running out for one of the world's most precious resources—sand.

The Growth of the Sand Mafia

After water, sand is the second most used natural resource in the world. We use billions of tons of the stuff every year and the supply is starting to run out. Shortages have caused a sand black market to develop and the people involved in the trade are not picky about the tactics they use.

Uses of Sand

Surely, the supply of sand is endless, with deserts and beaches everywhere. You would think so, but you would be wrong. First, a few rather dull statistics to set the scene.

The major use of sand is in concrete, of which there are many grades. In general, sand makes up between a quarter and a third of the volume of concrete. What's called M25 concrete is widely used in construction and is made up of one part cement, one part sand, and two parts gravel.

World concrete production is currently 4.4 billion tons a year and this is predicted to rise to 5.5 billion tons in 2050. So it's fair to say that the demand for sand in concrete is more than one billion tons a year and rising.

Sand is also used to make glass—think windows, wine glasses, smart-phone screen, and windshields. Sand is a major part of asphalt for roads and roofs. Most of our electronic devices use silicon chips made from sand.

“The amount [of sand] we use every year is enough to construct a wall 27 metres high by 27 metres wide around the equator.”

— Pascal Peduzzi, Director of Global Resource Information Database at the United Nations

In addition, vast tonnages of sand are being dredged up from ocean floors to build artificial habitations. Lagos, Nigeria has built a 9.7 sq km (2,400 acre) extension to its shoreline. China has added hundreds of kilometres to its shoreline as well as building luxury resort islands. Singapore, California, and Hong Kong are some of the many places that are using sand to reclaim land from the ocean.

Construction of buildings on reclaimed land in Singapore makes it one of the world's biggest importers of sand. Its traditional suppliers, Vietnam and Indonesia, have banned exports of sand to Singapore because of the environmental damage caused by the mining of it.

Added up, world consumption of sand hits an estimated 50 billion tons a year.

“Using satellite data with Google Earth, [the Dutch research group] Deltares said coastal regions had gained a net 13,565 square kilometres (5,237 square miles) of land since 1985, roughly the size of Jamaica or the U.S. state of Connecticut” (Reuters). Sand forms the foundation for all this land.

The palm-tree shaped islands of Dubai are built out of sand.

The palm-tree shaped islands of Dubai are built out of sand.

Let's Mine the Sahara Desert

The Sahara Desert covers an area about 90 percent the size of the United States, but only 25 percent of it is sandy. The folk at BBC Earth Unplugged got their calculators out and estimate there are 1,504 septillion grains of sand in the Sahara Desert. This, of course, is a completely meaningless number that can be expressed as “a heck of a lot.”

So let's get the dump trucks loaded up and cart the sand off to ready-mix concrete plants. But there's a snag. Isn't there always? Desert sand is sculpted by the wind and the grains tend to be round; great for little Timmy's sandbox but not, apparently, the kind of sand that's much use for making concrete.

Dubai, a desert country, has to import sand from Australia to build its apartment and office towers.

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What's needed is more angular sand that comes from beaches, lakes, river beds, and anywhere it has been eroded by water. The supply of that kind of sand is limited and most of it has been scooped up already.

What's left is being mined mostly from river beds either through pumping, dredging, or scraping. This destroys river ecosystems, but the sand is so valuable that it overrides concerns about fish and aquatic plants.

There's a lot of sand in the Sahara Desert, but it's the wrong sort for construction.

There's a lot of sand in the Sahara Desert, but it's the wrong sort for construction.

The Criminal Sand Miners

As sand has become scarcer and more valuable, criminals have been attracted into the trade. They succeed by paying corrupt officials to leave them alone. Should anyone stand up to their illegal activities they are dealt with in the traditional organized crime manner—death.

In November 2019, the BBC listed some recent activity: “A South African entrepreneur shot dead in September. Two Indian villagers killed in a gun battle in August. A Mexican environmental activist murdered in June.

“Though separated by thousands of miles, these killings share an unlikely cause. They are some of the latest casualties in a growing wave of violence sparked by the struggle for one of the 21st century’s most important, but least appreciated, commodities: ordinary sand.”

The media in India calls the illegal sand-mining gangs “sand mafias” and says they have killed dozens of people. Violence over illegal sand mining has also taken place in Indonesia, Kenya, Gambia, and elsewhere.

There are no international accords regulating the extraction of sand and the United Nations Environmental Program has been calling for a controlling agency to be set up. At present, for some, it's a case of grab while the grabbing's good.

Alternatives to Sand

The developing shortage of such a basic commodity as sand is spurring development of alternatives:

  • Additives to desert sand are being tried to see if it can bind well with cement.
  • Replacing some sand with shredded plastic or rice husks, in concrete mixes is being tried.
  • Crushing and recycling concrete from demolished structures show promise.
  • Crushing and pulverizing rocks to create sand faster than nature.

A solution of some sort has to be found before the last grains of sand are used up.

Bonus Factoids

  • A French study concluded that in 2011, 50 million tons of sand were taken from the Mekong River in southeast Asia. That's enough sand to cover the city of Denver, Colorado to a depth of two inches.
  • Poyang Lake is China's largest body of fresh water and it's been dredged for its sand to feed construction booms: “In the last decade, Shanghai has built more high-rises than there are in all of New York City” (The Guardian, 2017). So much sand has been taken out of the lake that it has caused big ecological disruptions.
  • In 2016, China used enough sand in construction to cover the entire state of New York to a depth of one inch.
  • Numerous river bridges have collapsed because of sand mining near them—Taiwan (2000), India (2016), India again (2021), among others. The Hintze Ribeiro disaster in Portugal in 2001 is another tragic example.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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