The sand theft, a phenomenon which has devastating environmental effects

#environmental sustainability #nature #economy

Sand is, after water, the most sought after natural resource. It is an essential component in the manufacture of electronic devices and glass, and it is also used in bulk in construction. Rapid population growth and the mass development of cities have turned this material into a scarce commodity and a very lucrative business has emerged in trading sand. The sand theft is a real threat to the environment.

Every year, about 60 billion tons of raw materials are extracted from nature. 85% of this is sand. Everything around us contains sand, from plastics to cosmetic products, to household appliances. Even toothpaste contains this type of material — a maximum of 20% —, but the main use of sand is in the construction industry: about 25 billion tons of sand are used every year to make cement, asphalt, etc.


Urbanisation is not going to slow down. According to the most recent report from the United Nations Environment Program, Sand, a More Valuable Resource Than We Think (2014), 54% of the world's population lives in urban areas and the figure is expected to increase to 66% by 2050. Countries like Singapore or Dubai import sand — both legally and illegally — to reclaim land from the sea and create artificial islands. A revealing fact is that this Asian country has increased its land area by more than 20% over the last 40 years. The mega-cities in India and China are growing relentlessly — Shanghai is doing so at an extremely fast pace, by almost a million people a year —, and its urbanisation devours huge amounts of sand.

According to the UN, China produces almost 60% of the world's cement. After the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric project in the world, Lake Poyang, once a natural paradise, is now a virtual desert from which 236 million cubic metres of sand are extracted every year — in the United States only 16 million cubic metres of sand are extracted per year —. The reality is irrefutable: globally we use up twice as much sand as our rivers can transport, so, besides from dredging rivers, sand is obtained by exploiting beaches and, to a lesser extent, the seabed.

The aforementioned report from the United Nations Environment Program points out that the trafficking of sand is a very lucrative business. In Morocco, to cite just one example, half the sand (about 10 million cubic metres per year) comes from the illegal trafficking of sand from beaches. "Sand traffickers have turned a large beach into stony ground between Safi and Essaouira", said the report.

1,000,000 mineral grains subjected to intense processes of erosion and weathering.
An individual particle within that handful is known as a sand grain or clast.
The size of a grain of sand ranges between 0.0625 and 2 millimetres.
Sand is transported by wind and water, and deposited in the form of beaches, dunes and sandbanks.
Sand on the beach contains quartz, volcanic glass, olivine, garnet, basalt, as well as different magnetic minerals.
It is estimated that 200 tons of sand are needed to build a medium-sized house.
A hospital, 3,000 tons.
And, to build just one kilometre of motorway, 30,000 kilos of sand are required.
The world average consumption has reached 40 billion tons of sand per year, and about 30 billion tons are destined for the manufacture of reinforced concrete.
Sandy soils have excellent drainage characteristics, which is why they are normally used for intensive agriculture.
  • Angular
  • Sub-angular
  • Sub-rounded
  • Rounded
  • Very rounded


 SEE INFOGRAPHIC: Sand, grain by grain [PDF]


The huge demand for sand fuels the activity of illegal networks. The price per ton has shot up over the last decade and these networks have plundered beaches in many countries such as Vietnam, Sierra Leone, India and Cape Verde — where sand extraction has been prohibited since 2002 —. In addition, several Cambodian rivers have seen their sand disappear, endangering crops and riverside villages, and in Indonesia some 25 islands have disappeared since 2000.

The environmental consequences of the excessive use of sand are devastating: it is estimated that between 75% and 90% of the world's beaches are getting smaller. The dredging and extraction of sand from the bottom of the sea and rivers profoundly affects the environment in several ways:

  • Biodiversity: with the disappearance of beaches and river banks, many species lose their natural habitat.
  • Loss of land: islands and arable land disappear, both inland and in coastal areas.
  • Hydrological aspects: rivers change their course, causing high water levels and floods, also tidal cycles are altered.
  • Water quality: water can become contaminated as a result of landslides, making it no longer suitable for human consumption.
  • Infrastructure: water level rises in rivers damage bridges, houses, wharves and reservoirs.
  • Climate: directly, through contamination by the extraction and transport of sand, and indirectly, through the production of cement or asphalt.
  • Landscape: coastal erosion, changes in deltas and river mouths, etc.
  • Decreased protection against extreme events: floods, droughts, maritime storms with sizeable waves, etc., have a greater effect because of the destruction of beaches and riverbanks.


In order to reverse this situation and reduce the consumption of sand around the world, the UN proposes several measures.

Find out how to avoid the sand theft.#RRSSFind out how to avoid the sand theft.

Find out how to avoid the theft of sand

  • Reusing construction materials, such as cement.
  • Mixing sand from beaches and rivers with sand from the desert.
  • Using mining and quarry waste as an alternative to sand.
  • Using a 40% ash mix with sand, we increase the compressive strength of cement.

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Committing to these initiatives seems even more urgent if we take into account that sand is a natural resource, which is formed in a slow process, and that the consequences of the over-exploitation of non-renewable natural resources has its own effects.

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