Sands of Time
Words by Starre Vartan
Photographs by Sim Chi Yin
Sometimes the evidence is absence: Two unsuspected 6-foot-deep pits in the middle of a stretch of Indian beach or spindly, elderly palm trees lying flat on their sides, their roots exposed, with no sand to dig into. Or, one might see it in the form of heaps of sand piled neatly next to a carved-out riverbank in China or sand being transferred by heavy machinery into a truck. But most often it’s quiet, hidden behind the labor of young bodies, sleek with sweat or muddy water, innocent-looking fishing boats bobbing placidly off the shore, chunks of land gone missing under the cover of dark, invisible to the casual eye.
“So many people haven’t known they were observing sand mining—often it can look like something innocuous,” says Sumaira Abdulali, a Mumbai-based environmentalist who has worked on sand mining and noise pollution issues since 2003. She says that the setup can be as simple as an ordinary wooden boat with a generator and a tube. “It looks quite calm—peaceful even, but these suction pumps are the most damaging to the local ecosystem,” she explains. It’s covert operations like these that have buried an alarming and unfathomable truth: The world is running out of sand.
Sand mining is a massive global business, worth $2.3 billion in India alone. Over 50 billion tons of sand are moved every year. When it’s used to make concrete for construction projects, that transport is fairly local, but in other circumstances, it can amount to moving land from one country to another, involving off-shore dredgers that pull the seafloor onto boats and transport it hundreds or thousands of miles away.
More than 20 Indonesian islands have been “completely obliterated” by sand miners, according to Vince Beiser, author of The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization. On boat after boat, the sand went to Singapore, “which needs titanic amounts of sand to continue its program of artificially adding territory by reclaiming land from the sea,” Beiser writes. The island city-state has added 50 square miles since the 1970s—and it’s not stopping, despite the fact that nearby Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia have banned exports of sand to Singapore. Similarly, Dubai has added not just a man-made peninsula—the tree-shaped Palm Jumeirah, home to luxury apartments and resorts—but a collection of 300 artificial islands called The World. They’re all made with sand from the Persian Gulf and as far away as Australia.
Sand mining, whether from the shore or deep within oceans or rivers, is a huge extractive industry, directly and significantly affecting the environment in numerous and interlocking ways. It impacts everything: the wildlife that lives in and near the water; local water tables; flood control and mitigation; and the livelihood and health of the people who live near the water. But until recently, this kind of mining hasn’t been controlled like the extraction of gold, minerals, or other useful geological products—even in countries that have a long record of environmental regulation.
Singapore and Dubai are hardly the only offenders when it comes to sand mining, though they may be the most audacious. Special types of sand are mined from ancient deposits in the wilds of Wisconsin to enable fracking in Utah, and superpure silica sands in North Carolina are coveted for silicon chips. Developing countries like China, India, Cambodia, Vietnam, and more would still need tons of sand, even if they didn’t export it, simply to supply their own building booms.
From Fine to Finite
Due to its ubiquity, sand has long been treated as an unlimited, “common pool” resource, and thus faces the great tragedy of the commons: overuse. Sand and gravel are the most extracted group of materials in the world—even more than oil, according to recent research. Vietnam may run out of sand for domestic use alone by 2020.
The challenge is that we can’t just stop mining sand while we figure out how to mitigate impacts. Most sand goes to the construction industry—creating almost any new building requires it, and a continually expanding human population needs homes, hospitals, and regional warehouses to hold everything we order online. But it’s bigger than just one industry: “We couldn’t live our modern lives without sand. From brushing our teeth, to the drinking water flowing from our tap, to looking at ourselves in the mirror or putting on our glasses, or the utensils we use at breakfast—sand was used in the supply chain for all those things in some way,” explains Kiran Pereira, the founder of SandStories, a site that documents the sand-mining crisis.
Over the last decade, some countries have put rules in place: In Europe, sand mining from rivers has been outlawed in a number of countries—which sounds good until you consider that “this drives sand mining companies to other areas,” says Aurora Torres, a postdoctoral researcher at the German Center for Biodiversity Research, where she assesses the impacts of human land use.
Beyond that, the scope of the problem is more amorphous, even in countries with strict environmental rules: “Statistics are not very good, not even in developed countries like Norway or Sweden—generally, extraction of construction materials is underreported, including sand,” says Torres. “We know far less than we think we know.”
Why is there so much ignorance about how much sand is mined and used? It’s hard to track, available in a plethora of locations—inland, near rivers and lakes, in and near the ocean—and it’s easy to get. And as both demand and prices have risen, black markets and mafias have stepped in to meet demand where there are weak or unenforced regulations. Unsurprisingly, that system has led to very real and significant negative impacts on human and environmental health.
Travel less than 20 miles north of Mumbai, on India’s west coast, and you’ll come to Thane Creek. During the real estate boom from the 1990s until 2014, Thane’s creek bed was heavily mined for sand both legally and illegally. Some days, up to 200 boats with crews of 8 to 10 divers each worked a full shift to bring sand up from the bottom by hand in heavy iron buckets. Although regulations stated that only the top foot and a half of the river’s sandy bottom could be mined, there are large areas where 12-15 feet was removed—all to build Mumbai.
The now-undulating river bottom has destroyed fishing in the area, as well as local mangroves (where fish and birds breed), and it has disturbed the local groundwater balance, according to Abdulali. She’s hopeful that Thane Creek’s recent rehabilitation, which includes a flamingo sanctuary, will help it to recover—but that’s just one river. Meanwhile, she says similar stories are unfolding in other parts of the country, some under cover of darkness and with illegal or unenforced permits.
For building material, river sand is the best, since the jagged edges of the sand grains create strong bonds. Desert sand, which is worn by the wind, has extremely round grains, making it a poor material to mix with cement to make concrete, while sand from the ocean has salt and other impurities that must be washed out. When not dredged from the bottom of a river, sand is often mined from the soft sides of the curves of riverbanks, where it has collected over hundreds or thousands of years as water slows and eddies. These quieter spots in the river are also unique ecosystems in which fish breed and where young fish learn to swim before heading into the tougher waters. By destroying their habitat, sand mining disturbs most riverine fish species.
For example, 55 million tons of sand is mined from the Mekong River in Vietnam each year, which has lowered the level of the river by three feet. That’s led to salt-water intrusion and coastal erosion and has put fish stocks there—which feed over 60 million people—under even greater pressure, according to a World Wildlife Fund report.
That same report calls Lake Poyang on the Yangtze River in China, which was dredged to build Shanghai’s skyscrapers, “the largest sand mine in the world.” The lake and surrounding river floodplain is a key stopover for migrating birds, but removing 400 million tons of sand has altered the shape and size of the river, draining the lake (by making the river wider) and leaving it vulnerable to drought. Finless dolphins, local fish, and endangered birds have all suffered, and some officials have called for a ban on mining the lake. “In Sri Lanka and India, sand mining has destroyed crocodile habitats, sending the beasts closer to river shores, where they have killed at least half a dozen people in the last ten years,” writes Beiser in his book.
In Cambodia, sand mining in national parks has killed mangroves and sea grasses necessary for the survival of the rare hairy-nosed otter, as well as green turtles and Irrawaddy dolphins. When top predators like crocs, otters, dolphins, and large river fish are destabilized, the whole food chain below them is impacted—and it is precisely those animals that are affected by river sand mining.
The Human Cost
Changing the shape of riverbeds and shorelines has direct effects on people, too—and not just fishers. Where farmers depend on seasonal flooding of farmlands to enrich the soil, removing sand has changed inundation patterns and decimated food production. Sand mining can even hasten the spread of disease, by creating standing water pools that can become malaria-carrying mosquito breeding sites and havens for disease-causing bacteria, according to Torres.
Sand mining has also been linked to worsening flooding—already on the rise due to climate change—in a number of locations: “There were huge floods in Kerala recently, which were some of the worst floods we’ve ever had. At least some of the reason there was so much damage was due to sand mining. The river doesn’t have its natural, protective boundaries, and so there was damage to properties and deaths,” says Abdalali.
It’s a similar story in Houston, Texas, where the San Jacinto River has been mined (both legally and illegally), which “seriously exacerbated flooding damage during 2017’s Hurricane Harvey,” Beiser explains. Although the city was warned about this problem by environmental group American Rivers in a 2006 report, it looks like they’re finally getting serious about cracking down on the 30-odd sand mines—but this business has already created millions in damages.
Accessible fresh water, which makes up just about one percent of all the world’s water, is imperative for human and animal health, as well as a key foundation for a functioning ecosystem. Pollution and overuse are already putting stress on these systems—and you can add sand mining to that list of fresh-water supply offenders.
When it comes to the direct and inarguably negative aspects of sand mining, the illegal market takes the cake. Sand mafias are active in dozens of countries, and in order to preserve their power, they use every tactic in the book, including murder.
According to the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), 28 people were killed in 2018 trying to stop sand mining in India alone. “If you look at that report, many of those people killed are government officers. That’s the shocking part,” says Abdalali, who thinks that what’s needed is a system like India’s Forest Guards, local people who are paid a good wage and have the power to enforce the law—like an environmental police force. What else can be done?
Reducing demand could go some way minimizing the black market in sand: “We should design our infrastructure to last for longer time periods. And buildings should be designed for multiple uses over time. For example, we should be building a school in a way so that it could later be changed and become a hospital,” says Pascal Peduzzi, head of the Global Change and Vulnerability Unit in the science division of the United Nations. He also says we should focus on retrofitting rather than knocking buildings down and building new ones.
Another way to reduce demand is to have a different supply. Enter recycled construction debris, which can be used in place of sand and may even be available on-site (if a building is being torn down and another rebuilt in its place, say). Worldwide, only about one third of construction debris is recycled, but some proactive countries have significantly upped that number: The Netherlands currently recycles about 90 percent of its construction debris, and Abdulali points to this as a goal worthy of emulation. Additionally, such practices would also cut down on the amount of landfill space needed for this refuse. “Short term, I’d like to get the recycling model going,” says Abdulali. “[In some parts of India,] we do have the policies in place, but we need to force them to be taken seriously,” she says.
Promise also lies in the possibility of enabling desert sand—which is widely available and less destructive to remove—to be used for construction. The team behind a new material, Finite, has devised a novel way to do just that. While master’s students at London’s Royal College of Art, the group behind the breakthrough was looking for a materials challenge: “We found that there was sand being imported to Dubai, which has sand. So, why is it not being used?” explains Carolyn Tam, now at MIT. Once they realized that the sand surrounding Dubai was the wrong kind for making concrete, they wondered if there was an alternative. As they discovered, the answer is yes—they could make concrete from desert sand, and from other materials as well. Their proprietary binding material, “can bind other finds, like quarry waste, byproducts from mining, or even crushed glass,” says Tam. Finite is not just stronger than conventional concrete, it is designed to be biodegradable—and “unlike concrete, it can be melted down and reused,” says Tam.
In some cases, recycled plastics could replace concrete—and could be more durable than our current materials. In Zwolle, Netherlands, the first all-plastic bike path opened in September 2018. Another option is to cut the concrete with less-impactful materials, like earth, bamboo, wood, or straw, according to the United Nations Environment Program.
Demand for sand is increasing—and not just for building new structures. We also need to replace old buildings, since concrete doesn’t last forever. “The scariest notion is that many of these concrete structures are literally crumbling. Most of the world’s concrete is pretty new—a lot of it has been thrown up in the last 20 years, but it’s not being well-maintained. There’s going to be a possible crisis point in 20 to 30 years,” says Beiser.
Reducing the impact of mining will take a multi-pronged approach: recycling, new materials to use in place of sand, sustainable sand mining, reducing demand for buildings, and beach replenishment will go some of the way in making sand use more sustainable. But it’s not going to be simple, considering how easy it is to get sand illegally, how cheap it is (for now)—and how much is needed. Add it to the list of limited resource issues we’ll all be facing in the coming decades: “The problem is also a general problem of the growing consumption of natural resources—that’s a planetary challenge,” says Torres.
We need a radical rethinking of how we use the planet’s limited resources. Says Abdulali, “We have to forget this idea of ‘free natural resources.’ Nothing is free.”