What links the building you live in, the glass you drink from and the computer you work on? The answer is smaller than you think and is something we are rapidly running out of… sand. Sand and gravel are being extracted faster than they can be replaced. We need to manage this resource to protect rivers and avoid the world running out.
Sand is a key ingredient in the recipe of modern life, and yet it might be our most overlooked natural resource. Rapid urbanization and global population growth have fueled the demand for sand and gravel, with between 32 and 50 billion tonnes extracted globally each year. Consequently, we are now starting to exhaust a resource that many people often consider infinite.
Published today in Nature, a group of scientists from CU Boulder, the University of Illinois, the University of Hull, and Arizona State University highlight the urgent need for a global agenda for sand.
Chris Hackney, Research Fellow from the University of Hull’s Energy and Environment Institute, said: “The fact that sand is such a fundamental component of modern society, and yet we have no clear idea of how much sand we remove from our rivers every year, or even how much sand is naturally available, makes ensuring this industry is sustainable very, very difficult.
“It’s time that sand was given the same focus on the world stage as other global commodities such as oil, gas and precious metals.”
A lack of oversight and monitoring is leading to unsustainable exploitation, planning and trade. Removal of sand from rivers and beaches has far-reaching impacts on ecology, infrastructure, national economies and the livelihoods of the 3 billion people who live along the world’s river corridors.
Illegal sand mining has been documented in 70 countries across the globe, and battles over sand have reportedly killed hundreds in recent years, including local citizens, police officers and government officials.
Mette Bendixen, a researcher at CU Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), said: “From 2000-2100 it is projected there will be a 300% increase in sand demand and 400% increase in prices.
“We urgently require a monitoring program to address the current data and knowledge gap, and thus fully assess the magnitude of sand scarcity. It is up to the scientific community, governments and policy makers to take the steps needed to make this happen.”
Jim Best, a professor at the University of Illinois’ department of Geology, said: “Politically and socially, we must ask, if we can send probes to the depths of the oceans or the furthest regions of the solar system, is it too much to expect that we possess a reliable understanding of sand mining in the world’s great rivers, and on which so much of the world’s human population, rely?”
“Now is the time to commit to gaining such knowledge by fully grasping and utilizing the new techniques that are at our disposal.”
In order to move towards globally sustainable sand extraction, we need to fully understand the occurrence of sustainable sources, and reduce current extraction rates and sand needs, by recycling concrete and developing alternative to sand (such as crushed rocks or plastic waste materials). This will rely on a knowledge of the location and extent of sand mining, as well as the natural variations in sand flux in the world’s rivers. A global sand monitoring program is thus imperative.
The Carlsberg Foundation, and the Danish National Research Foundation provided funding for the study.