For most of us sand recalls the beach, holidays, and the sun but that is about it. In our daily lives, we do not pay much attention to this insignificant matter. But is sand really that common? Is it in infinite quantity and will it always be faithful to our holiday appointments? And beyond the coast, what is its real impact on our lives?
Sand is the hidden hero of our time. It is everywhere and yet few people are aware of it. When melted it is usually transformed into glass, but not only. Sand is the source of silicon dioxide, a mineral component that plays a significant role in manufacturing detergents, paper, dehydrated food, hair spray, toothpaste, cosmetics, and a multitude of products surrounding us. It is also a source of strategic minerals such as silicon, thorium, titanium, which are all necessary for our hyperconnected society. It is the basis of microprocessors, computers, bank cards, smartphones, and a host of devices that cannot be ignored today. It is like the air we breathe, we do not think about it, but we cannot live without it. The problem is that our appetite for sand goes much deeper.
The industrial sector that consumes the most sand is construction. Our main infrastructures are made of reinforced concrete whose technical performance and relatively low cost of production make it the ideal material. On the planet two third of what is built is made of reinforced concrete — and it consists of two thirds of sand. For instance, a house of average size requires 200 tons of sand to be built. A larger building, such as a hospital, needs about 3,000 tons. A kilometre of highway uses at least 30,000 tons of sand. And a nuclear power plant swallows up to 12 million tons. The amount of sand consumed each year exceeds 40 billion tons which makes it the most used natural resource in the world after air and water.
The sand market is huge, and the grainy industry is doing great. Roads are deteriorating, which need to be redone, bridges also need be renovated, people still need homes, buildings, etc. But meeting the demand is not always easy. Unlike popular belief, sand is not easy to find. Back in the days there were open–pit quarries of sand and gravel. But all the “easy accessible” and cheap resources have already been consumed. Then we switched to extracting sand in riverbeds, but we noticed that it could lead to more floods. Now we turn to seabed sand but we begin to realise that there are also many side effects. The ocean floor is not miles of sand deep. It is a thin layer that is habitat to microorganisms which feed the base of the food chain. Collecting that sand, which took hundreds of thousands of years to form, disrupts fishing in the area and landscape on shore. Yet it is here at the bottom of the oceans that we take the majority of sand that serves to feed an ever more voracious clientele.
Dubai is a striking example of this voracity. In a few decades this fishing village has become a sandbox where everything is allowed provided that it is unique and pharaonic. But in Dubai the delusions of grandeur devours a lot of sand. Huge amounts of sand are used to make concrete but also to gain ground on the sea with artificial islands. In 2000 the land value in Dubai had soared so high that it was cheaper to build artificial islands rather than buying lands. This result is fascinating but also fearsome regarding the results of land speculation. In 2003, Dubai decided to launch an extravagant project “The World”. Consisting of 300 artificial islands supposed to draw the map of the world, the project gobbled 450 million tons of sand pumped off the coast of Dubai. But today the construction of “The World” has stopped. The overexploitation completely liquidated the sand reserves. Of course we can suppose it is not a problem since Dubai is right next to the desert. So why does not Dubai just use it? They have tried, but immediately gave up the idea because it was a disaster. Desert sand is the wrong kind of sand, it is useless because these grains have been rolled by wind, they are round and smooth and they do not stick together. For most purposes we need angular sand that interlocks like pieces of puzzle, the one from the seabed. The irony of Dubai is that it is surrounded by useless desert sand and had to import sand from Australia to build Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world. In English there is a saying “to sell sand to an Arab” which refers to doing something absurd — in Dubai it has become a reality.
Whether for its mineral components or as an engine of urban growth, sand is a staple whose exports by country have totaled USD 1.7 billion in 2017. Sand is therefore a mineral value that can strongly participate in the economy of a region. At what price? When we extract sand from the ocean floor not only are we altering the underwater ecosystem, but we also cause a chain reaction whose repercussions are visible on the coast. Sometimes it can even lead to the disappearance of an island. When an island disappears, international maritime boundaries are affected and the stakes are not only commercial or ecological — they become geopolitical. Like most archipelagos, Indonesia is full of islands which are literally made of sand and 25 Indonesian islands have already been wiped off the map. If Indonesia shrinks it is because it has provided huge amounts of sand to its neighbour Singapore.
As dozens of overpopulated Asian cities, Singapore needs to expand to avoid asphyxia. The very existence of Singapore depends on its imports of sand. Its surface area has grown by 20% in the last 40 years, equivalent to 130 square kilometres. By 2030, it plans to add another 100 square kilometres to its surface. Its appetite is such that Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have all decided to forbid sand trading with Singapore. But sand addiction is not easy to restrain. Suspicions of traffic weigh on Singapore. The city has indeed found an alternative to import sand through local traffickers. Singaporean dealers operate under false identities and through fictitious companies to get sand supplies from neighboring countries, despite the prohibitions and with the consent of the state, their most loyal client. Unfortunately Singapore is not an isolated case. Governments worldwide have begun to regulate and restrict sand mining and concrete production. But it has led to new problems: a black market for sand and local sand mafias. In India the sand mafia is the most powerful criminal organisation. For these criminals, the beaches are easy prey because the sand is free and at hand. The pillaging of sand hits everywhere even on the most touristic sites.
This looting leads to the disappearance of beaches. Globally between 75 and 95% of the world’s beaches are receding. And the situation will only get worse. If nothing is done, in 2100 the beaches of the world will be ancient history and a large part of the world’s population will be affected. Are there solutions? Today there are materials that are able to replace concrete. There are examples of buildings made out of more than 90% recycled materials such as straw. But today the construction industry does not know how to build with other materials than concrete. The idea would be to use another granular material that would be a substitute for natural sand. There is a beach called the “Glass Beach” near San Francisco. At this place, for years, the city was getting rid of all its garbage on this beach. Gradually, the glass broke into small pieces that were polished by the waves. Nature itself has produced sand from used and broken bottles. Not only does it look like sand but it also has the same properties. The recycling of glass is a track that could ultimately help the beaches.
We have made tremendous progress on environmental protection, but the beach has been rather neglected. Sand deserves a little more respect and attention. If we are aware that every single grain of sand is as fragile as it is unique, then we will understand how much it is paramount to the planet and our lives.
by Chris Laugé