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“Sand Mafias” and Why Even Arabs Need to Import Sand from Australia

Deserts are growing thanks to climate warming, but the sand in some beaches and riverbanks is disappearing overnight. Where is it going?

"We know that we are using too much fresh water, we're cutting down too many trees, we're taking too many fish out of the oceans, and now we've come to find out we're using too much sand.”.... What are the solutions to this problem? To answer this question, we need to think of the bigger issue: globalization and overconsumption. The developing countries are in need of tremendous amounts of sand as they build infrastructure...

When I was growing up in Salerno, my family used to spend the summer days at the beach. At the time, it had beautiful golden sand and we children used to sift it for tiny “jewels” of red, green and blue, bury ourselves in it, and spend countless hours making sand castles. Years later I went back to this same beach and unbelievably, most of the sand was gone. What was left was a thin layer of what looked like a sorry mix of sand, soil and grit. What happened to my beautiful beach? I asked my cousins. The sand, they said, had been stolen by construction companies to use in their building sites. I was surprised, to say the least. I had never heard of such a thing.

Today I know that this is a common practice on a global scale and the people who do it now have a name: the “sand mafia”; it’s the illegal mining of sand.

Sand is an incredibly valuable commodity, more so than oil, and second only to water as a global resource. It’s used in virtually all our everyday products, and we’re surrounded by it: in water filtration, in brick and glass, it’s used in golf courses, the tarmac on roads, and of course, in construction because sand is a key ingredient for concrete.

Sand mining is not always illegal, but even when it isn’t, it’s a mostly unregulated industry. Sixty billion tons of it are used yearly in construction, and needless to say, with the ever-increasing global population and the commensurate need for housing and other construction, this need can only escalate as the global population is poised to grow by 25% by the year 2050.  Sand constitutes 40% of concrete by weight. In short, the world is desperate for sand. You may be thinking, “How can this be? With so many deserts the supply of sand must be limitless”.

Unfortunately, this is not so, desert sand is too fine for construction and so it must be bought or stolen from beaches and rivers. Ironically, even Arab countries must import their sand; they get it from Australia.

Rampant urbanization on a global scale means that we need ever more, “Apartment towers, highways, bridges, skyscrapers, metros, dams: Each of them swallows unimaginable helpings of sand. It could line the rivers, or it could form the cities that were rising everywhere alongside them, but it could not do both at once.” Vince Beiser, a US journalist who has written a book about the demand for sand sums it up this way: “No sand, no modern civilisation.” Therefore, the demand for this kind of sand is growing out of all proportion to its availability and predictions are that demand will continue to outstrip supply.

This isn’t only because of the construction of buildings; in extreme cases some countries are building entire islands, as for example, Dubai’s Palm Islands.

Not to mention Singapore, which has also built numerous islands. Jurong island, off its southern coast, has been called “a smear of sand,” yet it’s a quarter of the size of Nantucket. This is especially significant given the fact that Singapore–along with other places such as Bangkok–has very little sand locally, yet is among its major consumers.

The extraction of sand from rivers causes a cascade of environmental problems: the river banks erode and eventually collapse, causing landslides; the water table drops, causing wells and tributaries to run dry for miles around. In places like India, where this is a grave problem, rice paddies disappear. All along the river’s route, bridges are in danger of collapse as the removal of the sand undermines their foundations.

As the physical environment changes, so does the flora and fauna, leading to the loss of animal habitat. When a river is dredged for its sand, so is the sediment and everything else in it. This includes the fish in that river. Indeed, this kind of draining and dredging is also a principal cause of alligators losing their habitat. 

Who benefits from this kind of theft and ecological abuse? The chain is truly a long one: the local laborers who see it as a way to earn a living; those who own the trucks, earthmovers and equipment; mobsters; the suppliers who act as middlemen between the mafias and the real estate developers; corrupt police, officials, politicians, and in some countries such as India, even chief ministers of major states. Everybody profits in one way or another, at the cost of the environment.

Whether regulated or not, conditions like these generally lead to organized crime so it’s no surprise that the industry has become riddled with violence.

“The demand for sand is so intense in some places that organised criminal gangs have taken over the trade,” he says. “They have literally murdered hundreds of people, including many journalists, including one that was burned to death recently. Another one was hacked to death with machetes” .

What’s more, sand mining, both legal and illegal, is a very dangerous operation and also involves child labor. In one year alone in India, 193 people died.

What are the solutions to this problem? To answer this question, we need to think of the bigger issue: globalization and overconsumption. The developing countries are in need of tremendous amounts of sand as they build infrastructure that can satisfy the needs of their ever-increasing population, and the developed countries are already the chief over-consumers of all goods, commodities and resources. As Beiser put it: “We know that we are using too much fresh water, we’re cutting down too many trees, we’re taking too many fish out of the oceans, and now we’ve come to find out we’re using too much sand.”

Yet how can we cut the amount of concrete that the world uses? Perhaps we can’t, but we can replace it with other materials. These include alternatives like paper/fiber aggregates, waste plastic, post-consumer glass, and recycled concrete rubble. The problem with this purported solution is that most of the technology necessary to carry out this plan is either unavailable or prohibitively expensive in developing countries where most of the need seems to exist. And where it is available, industry prefers the greater profits insured by the cheapest option; once again, concrete.

Iceland, major source of sand, thanks to ice melt from global warming. Photo: Youtube

On the brighter side of climate warming (if there can be a brighter side to such a catastrophe!) is that as the ice caps melt, especially in Iceland, they dump plenty of sediment and sand in the global waterways. This sand, while it cannot keep up with demand, at least provides a modicum of replenishment. Dr Bendixen, a geomorphologist studying the phenomenon wonders, “Could this island, population 57,000, become a provider of sand to billions of people?”

On a more practical level, we need to do something immediately to try to stem at least the most dangerous aspects of the illegal sand mining. This is definitely doable. We need to regulate the industry and enforce the laws and regulations that may already exist. Although this sounds easy, it’s actually quite complex when you consider that corruption generally plays a huge role in the construction industry at all levels, and as mentioned before, in many countries this corruption reaches the top of the power pyramid. Nevertheless, our options are limited and the problem is becoming urgent.


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