When most of us think of limited resources, typically fossil fuels, trees or fresh water reserves come to mind. But, can we now add sand to the list? Well, according to scientists, our sand supplies are not only being depleted, but it’s happening at an alarming rate. Certainly, we’re all aware of the growing population in the world and its related effect on increasing demand for resources.
However, in order to correctly address the issue, we will all need to broaden our concept of not only the meaning of mineral reserves depletion but also the various industries that rely upon sand mining to sustain production. Crushed stone, gravel and sand are the most crucial elements involved.
The sand which is mined, done at rivers, beaches and sea floors, is used in three main areas: construction purposes including concrete and asphalt, glass, electronics and fracking for the recovery of gas and oil from shale. Moreover, the extraction of this resource is relatively easier than other traditional methods such as mineral mining. Added to this is the large misconception that sand is a resource that is abundant and inexhaustible.
Bank erosion and river degradation are the most immediate effects of sand mining. Another issue is the political dimension—in many developing countries, sand is illegally mined more and more by powerful groups supported by international businesses—some have begun to refer to them as ‘the sand mafia’—so local law enforcement are often powerless to intervene. Just this year there was a controversial story involving a local constable trying to intervene in illegal sand mining along the banks of India’s Yamuna River which ended fatally.
In a report published in the Science journal, the environmental effects of excessive sand mining are laid bare:
“Rapid urban expansion is the main driver of increasing sand appropriation...Sand and scarcity is an emerging issue with major socio-political, economic, and environmental implications...[For instance]In Sri Lanka, extensive sand mining exacerbated the impacts of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami... The high profits generated by sand trade often lead to social and political conflicts, including violence, rampant illegal extraction and trade, and political tensions between nations.”
Mining or Bust?
The environmental impact aside, if we accept the reality that sand is a finite resource, the industries which rely heavily upon the resource will also soon be affected.
According to a landmark report released by the Club of Rome assessing mineral depletion and its effect on production:
"Extraction is becoming more and more difficult as the easy ores are depleted. More energy is needed to maintain past production rates, and even more is needed to increase them,” continuing with a clear and very stern warning, “The production of many mineral commodities appears to be on the verge of decline… we may be going through a century-long cycle that will lead to the disappearance of mining as we know it."
As sand depletion is fueled by profits, there has not been much in the way of large-scale effort from government; however, local communities have begun fighting back with fresh initiatives that involve putting pressure on policy-makers to take firmer positions. Sand mining, like climate change, is an issue which will require the public educating itself and an all-out effort to take action.