The Guardian’s Neil Tweedie reports on how the insatiable demand of the global building boom has unleashed an illegal market in sand. He writes that “Gangs are now stealing pristine beaches to order and paradise islands are being dredged and sold to the construction industry.” This is a serious concern at the local and global levels. Here are a few excerpts:
Paradise is a beach, we are told. Pristine white or coral pink. We leaf through brochures in search of perfect sand. There is a Paradise Beach on Barbados, and in Croatia, and Thailand, and South Africa, too. In every tourist-hungry part of the globe, in fact. The naturalist Desmond Morris believes that, as descendants of water-loving apes, we are hard-wired to seek out these places, lulled by the rhythmic advance and retreat of the ocean as we soak up the sun, sand grains trickling through our workless fingers.
[. . .] Sand is second only to water as a natural material extracted by humans, and our society is built on it, quite literally. [. . .] Our need for concrete is such that we make almost 2 cubic metres worth each year for every man, woman and child on the planet. [. . .] International trade in sand is rising as local supply outstrips demand. The destruction of habitats vital to fish, crocodiles, turtles and other forms of riverine and marine life accompanies the destruction of sand barriers and coral reefs protecting coastal communities, as in Sri Lanka. [. . .]
No one knows how much damage is being done to the environment because sand extraction is a largely hidden threat, under-researched and often happening in isolated places. “We are addicted to sand but don’t know it because we don’t buy it as individuals,” says Aurora Torres, a Spanish ecologist who is studying the effects of global sand extraction at Germany’s Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research. “Extraction has grown strongly over the past four decades and has accelerated since 2000. Urban development is putting more and more strain on limited accessible deposits, causing conflict around the world. Sand dredging degrades corals, seaweeds and seagrass meadows and is a driver of biodiversity loss, threatening species already on the verge of extinction. Our consumption of sand is outstripping our understanding of its environmental and social effects.”
[. . .] From Jamaica to Morocco to India and Indonesia, sand mafias ruin habitats, remove whole beaches by truck in a single night and pollute farmlands and fishing grounds. Those who get in their way – environmentalists, journalists or honest policemen – face intimidation, injury and even death. “It’s very attractive for these sand mafias,” says Torres, who is one of the few academics studying this Cinderella issue – overshadowed as it is by climate change, plastic pollution and other environmental threats. “Sand has become very profitable in a short time, which makes for a healthy black market.”
[. . .] Of course, you can always steal sand to nourish your beach, rather than buy it. In 2008, at Coral Spring on the north coast of Jamaica, 500 truck-loads of pristine sand was spirited away in a single night, never to be seen again. And when sand was required last year for a new resort in the Canary Islands it was imported (illegally, say environmentalists) from Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony now occupied by Morocco. Sand looted from beaches and riverbeds in the disputed territory is shipped north to Morocco for construction and to nourish the kingdom’s tourist beaches. “Beach nourishment is like a sticking plaster,” says Cooper. “It does not remove the underlying reasons for erosion. Worse, it provides a false sense of security. In future, as sea levels rise, it will demand bigger and bigger volumes of sand to be effective.”
[. . .] Our demand for sand appears ever more insatiable. Can rampant sand extraction be curbed? A win-win solution is the use of waste plastic in making concrete. Research suggests small particles of plastic waste – “plastic sand” – can replace 10% of the natural sand in concrete, saving at least 800m tonnes per year. Another solution is more intelligent design: concrete structures are often over-engineered, incorporating beams that are thicker than necessary. A team at Cambridge University is using computer modelling to size concrete more efficiently and cut waste.
Aurora Torres warns that such measures will not eliminate the continuing need for sand mining on a vast scale and that stricter monitoring and enforcement in the developing world are required. “This is a hidden ecological disaster in the making,” she says. “We will be hearing a lot more about sand in the coming years.”
[Photo above: Alamy.]