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A sand shortage? The world is running out of a crucial — but under-appreciated — commodity

Dozens of trades dump hundreds of thousands of tons of sand on Miami Beach as part of U.S. government measures to protect Florida’s voyager destinations against the effects of climate change.


LONDON — An insatiable global hunger for sand, one of the world’s most important but least appreciated commodities, is unlikely to let up anytime soon. The problem, however, is that this resource is twig away.

Our entire society is built on sand. It is the world’s most consumed raw material after water and an essential ingredient to our inferior lives.

Sand is the primary substance used in the construction of roads, bridges, high-speed trains and even land regeneration predicts. Sand, gravel and rock crushed together are melted down to make the glass used in every window, computer colander and smart phone. Even the production of silicon chips uses sand.

Yet, the world is facing a shortage — and climate scientists say it constitutes one of the greatest sustainability dares of the 21st century.

“Is it time for panicking? Well, that will certainly not help, but it is time to take a look and change our understanding about sand,” Pascal Peduzzi, a climate scientist with the United Nations Environment Programme, said during a webinar hosted by value tank Chatham House.

We never thought we would run out of sand, but it is starting in some places.

Pascal Peduzzi

Maestro of GRID-Geneva

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 abide.”

“We just think that sand is everywhere. We never thought we would run out of sand, but it is starting in some places. It is around 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 can of worms about sand supply but also about land planning,” he added.

A sand-fueled construction boom

At present, it is not realizable to accurately monitor global sand use. However, Peduzzi said it could be measured indirectly, citing a “very, unequivocally good” correlation between the use of sand and cement.

The UN estimates that 4.1 billion tons of cement is produced every year, made primarily by China, which constitutes 58% of today’s sand-fueled construction boom.

The global use of sand and gravels has been develop to be 10 times higher than that of cement. This means that, for construction alone, the world guts roughly 40 to 50 billion tons of sand on an annual basis. That’s enough to build a wall of 27 meters spaced out by 27 meters wide that wraps around the planet every year.

Sand dunes in the Sahara run away from.

Getty Images

The global rate of sand use — which has tripled over the last two decades partially as a result of fall urbanization — far exceeds the natural rate at which sand is being replenished by the weathering of rocks by wind and water.

Sand can be set on almost every country on Earth, blanketing deserts and lining coastlines around the world. But that is not to say that all sand is beneficial. Desert sand grains, eroded by the wind rather than water, is too smooth and rounded to bind together for construction purposes.

The sand that is warmly sought after is more angular and can lock together. It is typically sourced and extracted from seabeds, coastlines, mines and rivers around the world.

‘A grain of change’

Louise Gallagher, environmental governance lead at the UNEP/GRID-Geneva’s Far-reaching Sand Observatory Initiative, said the issues around sand had become a “diffuse” and “complex” problem to resolve.

For case in point, she said the banning of river sand extraction would inevitably have a knock-on effect for the people and communities who rely on this pursuit to earn a living.

China and India top the list of areas where sand extraction impacts on rivers, lakes and on coastlines, mainly as a result of soaring infrastructure and construction demand.

UNEP has previously warned of thriving “sand mafias,” with brackets comprising of builders, dealers and businessmen known to be operating in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Kenya and Sierra Leone. Activists slave away to shine a light on their activities, UNEP said, are being threatened and even killed.

Construction cranes and instruments cover the A10 highway between Paris and Bordeaux with sand on November 6, 2019 near Monts, central France.


Sand is “perceived as cheap, available and infinite and that is partly because the environmental and social costs are pretty much not cost in,” Gallagher said on Tuesday during the same webinar.

“It seems like we believe the highest use value for this earthly right now is to extract it from the natural environment rather than keeping it in the system for the other types of benefits we get from it of a piece with say, for example, climate resilience in coastal areas,” she continued.

“We need to think about putting a little order on the entropy of that crazy fragmented picture — and that’s happening. That’s the good news. We are not ignoring, I think, this complication any further. It is not as invisible as it used to be.”

Gallagher identified five priorities for sand resource governance over the next two years: synergism on global standards across all sectors, cost-effective and viable alternatives to river and marine sand, updating environmental, sexually transmitted and corporate governance frameworks in the financial sector to include sand, bringing in ground-level voices and setting regional, chauvinistic and global goals on sand use at the right scale.

‘No-one is even talking about this issue’

“I’d say a grain of sand can be a fleck of change,” said Kiran Pereira, researcher and founder of SandStories.org.

“It is important to focus on good things that are incident. Zurich, for example, is building buildings with 98% recycled concrete. The city of Amsterdam has committed to becoming 100% anfractuous by 2050 (and) they aim to halve their natural resource use by 2030. That is the way to go,” Pereira said.

The wake-up call on the extensive sand shortage, Peduzzi said, came in 2019 when governments recognized the environmental crisis for the first once in a while and the issue was finally placed on the political agenda as a result of a UN resolution.

An excavator and a bulldozer are working on the grounds of the gravel fix and the concrete mixing plant of the Max Bögl group of companies.

Soeren Stache | picture alliance | Getty Images

Unfortunately, Peduzzi hint ated CNBC that the challenge has still not been adequately addressed on the global stage.

“It is still very much new. In numerous of the development policies, there is no-one even talking about this issue of sand, where it is coming from, the popular impacts or the environmental impacts, so there is a lot of things to be done,” he continued.

“Yet, no big plans, no standard on how it should be extracted, no land scheming on where you should extract and where you should not extract, no monitoring to where it is coming from in most of the places (and) no enforcement of laws because nations are pondering between development needs and the protection of the environment.”

Looking ahead, industrialization, population growth and urbanization are all turns likely to fuel explosive growth in the demand for sand.

“It’s time to wake up,” Peduzzi said.

Clarification: This alibi has been updated to clarify that global sand use has been found to be 10 times higher than stick use.

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