By Kiran Pereira
If you want to know the ‘most consumed raw material on earth’ look no further! Sand and gravel have overtaken even water on this front. Yet, not many people would think about sand unless they wanted to go on holiday to a beach! This resource exerts a hegemony that is unrivalled. From the mundane to the mystical, the uses of sand are far too numerous to list exhaustively here. Sand and its derivatives are not only used in things that we see and know such as glassware in our homes, window panes, and of course in the concrete in buildings and infrastructure, but also in things such as toothpastes, sunscreens, wines, paints, aircraft alloys, and even in electronic chips in our debit/credit cards, mobile phones, computers and other gadgets that power our hyper-connected societies.
There are several modes of extracting sand depending on the purpose and the location of the sand. However, one can see surprisingly similar trends across both developing and developed countries. What is common across many sites is local opposition to the mining barring a few people who benefit directly from the operations. One also sees suppression of local people and bullying of local governments by powerful elites both local and/or non-local. These range from politicians and multinational corporations to antisocial elements in the region.
Global Use No. 1: Construction:
Globalization has had massive impacts on human life on Earth. Its sphere of influence extends from homogenization of cultural aspects such as clothes, food and language to even things like the concept of modernity. Today, one would expect similar infrastructure in cities that are either developed or rapidly developing. One sees a greater number of glass facades and skyscrapers as cities develop. It has become the norm to expect more and more roads, airports, bridges, ports, golf courses, parking lots in a modern country irrespective of terrain and geography. However, beneath this extraordinary growth lies an unexamined philosophy. Since ancient times, sand and other aggregates have always been used to create concrete. But the scale of construction has increased far beyond measure today and this increase in scale has spawned problems that few people in earlier generations could have imagined.
Sand, once considered a symbol of abundance is surprisingly in short supply in many parts of the world. Sand mining is often a contentious process and it has been reported to cause many socio-economic and environmental problems. In Morocco, for instance, sand mining along the coastal dunes is very common. Most of this sand is used in construction/development projects of the country. Such indiscriminate sand mining poses a serious risk. Studies on the northern part of the Mediterranean coast of Morocco indicate that the area is likely to be severely impacted by sea-level rise. Estimates show that as early as 2050, almost 50% of the sandy shore on the north eastern side would be lost to inundation in the event of a high sea-level rise. In addition, development pressures and a total absence of beach-dune management have led to destruction of over 95% of the coastal dunes on the Mediterranean coast of Tetouan. The remaining dunes are threatened by future development projects. This development pressure is further exacerbated by a ten-fold increase in the summer by the tourist population from the hinterland and abroad. Ignoring the fundamental relationship between dunes and beaches has led to irreversible damage and destruction of dunes in many places. Since coastal dunes act as ‘storage and source zones’ for beach sand, destruction of dunes disrupts the coastal sediment budget. In addition, the vulnerability of the region increases when the dunes are no longer available to buffer against storms and contribute to nearshore wave energy dissipation.
Despite such a risk and several protests from the locals living in the vicinity, indiscriminate sand mining continues unabated posing great risks to life, property, infrastructure and business along the coast. Morocco is not alone in this regard. Similar extensive sand mining to fuel the construction boom in many parts of the world has led to erosion of river banks, groundwater depletion, threat to water security, decimation of biodiversity, failure of crops and falling catch of fishermen, increasing public health costs, change in land-use patterns, destruction of infrastructure such as bridges, culverts, village roads, ancient buildings due to increased heavy traffic in previously quiet areas, increased vulnerability to sea-level rise and many other problems.
In many countries, the demand for this resource has fuelled illegal mining and the formation of ‘sand mafias’. Illegal sand mining to support creation of new land has also led to geopolitical tension between neighbouring countries. For instance, Singapore has been reported to continue to expand its coastline from sand that has been illegally mined from its neighbouring states.
Global Use No.2: Extraction of sand for strategic minerals
As mentioned above, sand is also a source of strategic minerals which are indispensable to our modern lifestyles. Derivatives from these minerals are used extensively in a wide range of products and also in industrial processes. Mineral sands form a critical part of the natural resources of a country. However, just as with other natural resources, the exploitation of these resources should be done with much due diligence and care to minimise negative impacts of the operations. Unlike construction which is a consumptive use, some of the sand is returned to the site after extraction of minerals. However, the process of extraction itself has long-term impacts that are yet to be widely recognised. Evidence suggests that not only does such mining pose a threat to existing flora and fauna but it also affects the water table adversely, thus threatening all life forms including humans. One of the most prominent examples of this can be seen in the case of the Stradbroke island in Australia.
Stradbroke is a holiday destination 40kms from Brisbane. 50% of the Island is covered by wetlands designated as Ramsar sites and much of the island is National Park. Stradbroke Island contains the second largest sand mines in the world. Heavy minerals that are mined are rutile, zircon and Ilmenite, with some silica mining as well. The mines are up to 100 metres deep and extend well below the water table impacting adjacent Ramsar protected wetlands. Local people feel that Governments in Queensland have failed to enforce environmental regulations on the island. Recent scientific evidence conclusively proves that sand mining operations affect the aquifer, reduce the amount of water and threaten the wetlands of the region. There have been long standing protests from locals and indigenous communities against sand mining in this region. Nonetheless, the pressure from industry is so strong that sand mining operations continue.
Global Use No.3: As a key element in energy generation via ‘fracking’
Fracking is the popular name for a method of energy generation called hydraulic fracturing. In simple terms, a cocktail mixture of numerous chemicals are injected under high pressure into the earth along with extremely large quantities of fresh water (steam) and sand. The sand acts as a ‘proppant’ when the grains get wedged in the fissures of rocks and prevent them from collapsing back together. Such vents formed by the sand grains allow gas to escape into the wells and can thus make it possible for natural gas to be tapped on a commercial scale. Fracking is known to be deeply unpopular with local communities for several reasons.
Similar concerns are also seen among areas where fracking sand is dredged. Mining for fracking sand has been reported to cause several socio-environmental problems. Removal of top soil and consequent loss of fertility, tearing down of irreplaceable sandstone hills that act as natural sponges/filters to absorb water into the ground and channel it to the aquifer, complete loss of biodiversity, destroyed beauty and ecology of the mining location, change in land-use patterns that threaten food security in the long run, increased risk of cancer and silicosis for the locals due to long-term exposure to silica dust from mine sites, contamination of groundwater from the chemicals used, growth of towns and cities at the expense of rural townships, decline in property values, the blaze of lights all night long, noise from hundreds of train cars, houses shaken by blasting.
In addition, the mining process itself uses thousands of gallons of water which further depletes the local aquifer. Despite the risks and impacts mentioned above, the fracking and sand mining industry continues to grow. There have been several protests from local communities. Many of them have been asked to concede to industry demands based on ‘creation of jobs’ and ‘national energy security’.
Extraction of sand is not only a massive problem in itself. It becomes exacerbated when one considers the four aspects that change the dynamics of the equation.
- The spatio-temporal mismatch: The production of sand by natural processes such as weathering takes several hundreds if not millions of years. Sand therefore is not a renewable resource, at least not by human timescales.
- The scale and pace of operations: All the three uses of sand listed above involve operations where sand is mined in colossal quantities. Very often, operations run relentlessly round the clock across the year. This pace is in sharp contrast to the pace of production of sand grains in the first place. For example, sand dunes/ sandstone hills that took millennia to form can be gone in a matter of a few decades.
- The hegemony of the resource: As far as its use as a ‘resource’ is concerned, not all sands are made equal. Depending on the use, certain kinds of sand are chosen for their specific morphology and chemical properties. There are very few alternatives that currently fit the bill in this regard.
- The lack of incentive to develop alternatives: At the moment, sand is valued very poorly. Most of the cost incurred by sand miners has to do with equipment, transport, wages and when it is done legally there is an added cost of procuring mining permits/leases and land rights. The sand itself though is free. It is in fact classified as ‘high volume- low value’ resource globally. Such a classification acts as a disincentive for finding large-scale solutions. When there is a shortfall, the immediate response is to source sand from elsewhere. This does not solve the problem. It merely transfers the problem elsewhere.
In conclusion, we can see that whether it is the US, Australia or India, surprisingly similar stories are being played out where local governments are bullied by outside vested interests (‘market forces’, corporations, politicians, and mafia) and are being forced to give in to demands for unlimited extraction of sand at all costs in the supposed interest of growth/national security/progress/job creation.
In many cases, environmental racism is played out in watersheds when oppressed and dispossessed communities and indigenous or even rural communities are disproportionately affected and left to deal with the aftermath of destroyed livelihoods, reduced quality of life and devastated ecosystems. In the meanwhile, the miners keep raking in the profits until they can and then move on to other areas where sand is more plentiful. Reclamation efforts are few and very often used a vehicle for ‘greenwash’.
What must be noted is that not all kinds of sand are suitable for all uses. Often, very stringent criteria need to be met for sand to qualify for a particular use. This automatically creates an imbalanced demand and supply situation as with other uses. It can be safely assumed that the need for construction, creation of new lands, extraction of strategic minerals for industrial use and need for a proppant during fracking are needs that are not likely to reduce/ diminish over the next few decades.
Therefore, what is critical at this juncture is to stop viewing these as disparate events. Taking a holistic/systemic view is essential to avoid coming up with short-term solutions that might in-turn cause other problems. For instance, many economies are currently turning towards marine/offshore sources of sand both for construction and for extraction of strategic minerals. While this is hideously expensive though currently feasible, new research is beginning to point towards the impacts of such sand extraction.
Dubai for instance has exhausted all its supply of marine sand and now is forced to import sand from Australia for construction. Indiscriminate extraction of marine sand has severe adverse consequences for aquatic life and fishermen whose livelihoods depend on a healthy ecosystem. This is because marine sand is the substrate and breeding site for the growth of microorganisms which in turn feed larger fish. Eliminating this substrate in massive quantities is bound to have a direct, if yet unmeasurable impact on the food chain due to lack of study.
Our oceans are already reeling with the impacts of overfishing and this could magnify the ill-effects several fold. It is also important to not only consider a long-term view but also especially recognise the value of ecosystem services provided by the resource in question. While sand is considered a great resource for humans in specific industrial processes, it also serves other functions that are not easily substituted. Depending on terrain and geography, sand may be pivotal in providing food security, protecting us during ocean disasters and against the rising sea-levels by acting as a buffer between land and the oceans. This is especially critical in light of climate change. Sand may be the filter that feeds local aquifers, the bedrock of biodiversity and the foundation of the food chain in the oceans and on land.
Many local governments and communities are taking measures to safeguard their people and counter the pressure from industry. At a national level, Sri Lanka has shown remarkable progress in not only drafting policy at a national scale but also in involving regulatory, law enforcement agencies, media and the public in curbing sand mining along two major rivers. Research is also being done on construction techniques that avoid concrete altogether. Cross-sector collaboration can speed up the discovery of solutions and scaling up of processes. It is not an easy journey but it is a crucial one to make a post-growth vision a reality.
 Fracking has been known to trigger earthquakes and cause water contamination from known and undisclosed hazardous chemicals. Severe impacts on rural communities and their livelihoods such as agriculture and livestock farming, creation of social rifts among neighbours are also among the ill-effects of fracking.