Houses, roads, glass, electronics.
Sand is a main component in large parts of modern civilization. But we are using it faster than nature can produce it.
Sand excavation is increasingly conducted in mines and along rivers in low- and middle-income countries, but up until now no one has systematically compared various research on how the industry affects these countries.
Professors Lars Lønsmann Iversen and Mette Bendixen from the University of Copenhagen wanted to change that.
Together with an international team of researchers they have collected and studied a number of research articles on the sand industry within a so-called review study.
They have then compared the results to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and conclude that the road to a sustainable sand industry is long.
‘Sand is the most used resource in the world, next to water, but the way it is extracted is in direct conflict with eight of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.
We do not have endless amounts of sand, and within the next 50 years we expect it to be in short supply. It is therefore vital that we are now able to point to significant sustainability issues involving the world’s sand resources’, says Lars Lønsmann Iversen.
The best sand is also the most problematic
Sand excavation and export is increasingly conducted in South and Southeast Asia in countries like India, Bangladesh and Cambodia, which are criss-crossed by some of the world’s largest river systems.
Increasing urban development and expanding infrastructure in neighbouring countries like China and Singapore generally provide a market for sand export. But sand consumption is the cause of significant local challenges.
‘One of the main problems in the sand industry is the fact that the best sand is found in the rivers. Unfortunately, this is where we see the greatest environmental and local human consequences of mining activities’, Lars Lønsmann Iversen explains.
‘Removing the sand deposits completely changes the nature of the individual river stretches, turning them into downstream rivers and significantly affecting the ecosystem.
The sudden lack of sand also affects the sediment discharge in these rivers, resulting in increased erosion.
This destabilises the river banks and increases the risk of flooding, and that affects the local population whose houses collapse and whose crops are ruined’.
Besides the environmental consequences, it also affects the drinking water. When the surface water and groundwater mix, the drinking water is polluted and we get new habitats for disease.
‘The negative consequences are to a large extent due to the fact that sand is an unregulated resource. Unregulated resources can be misused and exploited by rich countries.
The human consequences of these activities can be solved by regulating the way the resource is used locally. For example, the miners may suffer from poor working conditions.
The precious metal and diamond industries are already focussing on this issue, but in the sand industry it has gone more or less undetected’, says Lars Lønsmann Iversen.
But the researchers also stress a number of positive aspects of the sand industry. It is a necessary component in the global development, and it provides millions of jobs, which support a large part of the population in developing countries.
Alternatives to sand
In order to solve the sustainability issues, the researchers recommend increasing global regulation in the area. But they also suggest alternative resources to relieve pressure on the world’s sand resources.
‘When building roads, for example, we could add plastic components to the asphalt instead of sand.
And in construction, we could introduce more innovative wooden structures. But efforts are also being made to use desert sand, which is not suitable for concrete and cement production due to its poor binding power’, Mette Bendixen explains.
And there is a lot of sand in the deserts. The problem is that grains of sand of the same size have limited binding power, and desert sand is round and uniform.
The industry is therefore trying to manipulate the sand structure to make it more useful.
‘But we should not expect desert sand to become the next sand resource. It may be used together with something else, though’, says Mette Bendixen.