Sand appears such a freely available universal resource that it is easy to forget that availability is not a given and mining it can give rise to problems. In South Africa we are well aware of the exploitation of ilmenite sands and the effect on the environment. These sands are the most important source of titanium. But problems are arising with the more common sands. Yet sands which appear common are not always so – those with the right characteristics for construction are becoming scarcer and prone to illegal mining.

Sand is merely a collection of rock and mineral particles of a certain size falling between silt and gravel. Sand and gravel are the most extracted minerals in the world with the UN Environmental Programme estimating that they account for around 85% by weight of global mining.  Most of this goes into the construction industry with China accounting for very close to half of the 14 billion tonnes demand. Other demand comes from the glass and electronics industries and for fracking. Vast quantities are dumped in the sea to provide extensions to land areas. Singapore is now 20% larger than it was at independence in 1965 and China is a leader in land reclamation, including of course the disputed South China Sea rocks.

Other countries have a more urgent need for depositing sand. With a highest point of 2.4 metres the Maldives is understandably concerned about rising sea levels. Although said to be less than 2mm pa one can appreciate that this is still sufficiently concerning for the country to look at purchasing a new location in India or Australia. They have also taken sand from the smaller islands to build up the larger ones. New to me is the concept of beach theft but this is apparently taking place in the Maldives and in other parts of the world. Sand is a natural aquifer such that its removal can cause alarming drops in the water table. Illegal sand mining is a worldwide problem, but especially so in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu with an estimated daily extraction of 55,000 truckloads, worth over $2 billion a year, then smuggled to neighbouring states.

If sea levels continue to rise this will increase demand. The sand trade by sea is already important. The Middle East does not spring to mind as somewhere that is short of sand but the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai was built with Australian sand. Beaches in Morocco have been stripped of sand, at greater risk of storm damage, to build infrastructure for tourists coming to enjoy the beaches. Half of all sand used in construction and industry in that country is estimated to be derived from illegal mining.

Rising prices increase the demand for substitutes but also encourage illegal mining. Singapore is tapping into Dutch reclamation techniques for its next project, reducing the demand for sand.  The British Mineral Products Association reckons that 28% of building materials used in Britain in 2014 were derived from recycling. Europe plans to reduce the demand for industrial sand by recycling 75% of glass.

Sources: The Economist; Wikipedia.


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