What’s Happening to Our Sand?

Why Are There Sand Shortages Across the Globe?

As I was perusing the internet for articles on environmental issues recently, I came across a June, 2016 op-ed piece in The New York Times, entitled, The World’s Disappearing Sand by Vince Beiser, a journalist who is writing a book on the topic. For our work with The Wave and because of my own personal interests, I regularly follow many blogs, pod casts, articles, films, research projects, exhibitions and installations related to: global warming and it’s impact on water sources; water shortages and the reality of looming water wars; the proliferation of garbage in our oceans; and many other topics related to water that I have subsequently addressed here, as well as information on other environmental threats. This was the first time, however, that I had seen a reference to sand as a disappearing, vital resource. Given that I thought I had had a basic awareness of at least the major environmental topics of the day, I was both surprised at my total ignorance of this critical situation and highly disturbed by the nature of the problem itself.

Looking further, I found a trailer for Sand Wars, a comprehensive 2013 documentary by the award winning filmmaker, Denis Delestric; a TED Talk video, entitled, “Let’s Talk About Sand,” with Mr. Delestric; and hundreds of other fascinating print and digital references.

 Sand: The Major Ingredient of Concrete

Sand: The Primary Ingredient of Concrete

Here’s what I learned.

  • As it turns out, after water, sand is the second most consumed natural resource on Earth!
  • Why? Because sand is the primary ingredient for concrete, the material used in 80% of our built environment, i.e. for the construction of apartment buildings, hospitals, shopping centers, sidewalks, parking lots and just about any other physical component of city life.
  • Sand is also used in wine, dehydrated food, cosmetics, computer chips, plastics, windows, roads, etc.
  • The demand for sand, especially in the developing world, has increased astronomically as the global population has grown and as more and more people move into cities.
  • As Vince Beiser reported in “The World’s Disappearing Sand,” “China used more cement from 2011 to 2013 than the United States used in the entire 20th century.” Beiser also noted that “according to the United Nations Environment Program, in 2012 alone, the world used enough concrete to build a wall 89 feet high and 89 feet wide around the Equator.” The world demand is currently 40 billion tons of sand every year.
  • But sand, like water, is a finite resource. Although it’s found in abundance in deserts, desert sand is unusable for making concrete – the grains of sand found in deserts are round and smooth, rather than jagged, and don’t stick together when added to gravel and cement. That leaves only the sand available in rivers, beaches, and quarries,
  • In order to secure the sand that is needed, companies and local entrepreneurs are stripping riverbeds, beaches and floodplains. In places like India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Liberia, Nigeria and India, sand mining is destroying ecosystems, damaging coral reefs, lowering the water table and causing serious erosion along many shorelines. 75% – 90% of the world’s beaches are retreating as a result of erosion caused by dredging for sand along the ocean floor and coastlines. Sand mining has been documented in 73 countries and on 5 continents.
  • A whole industry of sand smugglers or sand thieves are extracting sand illegally in places where governments have regulated resources. People are actually being killed for sand in India by a ‘Sand Mafia.’
 Beach Sand Mining in Sierra Leone

Beach Sand Mining in Sierra Leone

 Sand Being Smuggled from the Krishna Riverbed, India, 2016

Sand Smugglers Along the Krishna Riverbed, India, 2016

  • In order to meet the on-going demand for sand around the world, efforts are being made to find alternatives to this vital resource. Using recycled glass that has been ground into fine particles is one such attempt at replenishing the sand in our rivers and beaches.
  • Additional efforts including conservation, stricter prohibition of sand mining and the development of other alternatives to sand must surely be part of the solution to this global crisis.


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