Humans extract 50bn tonnes of sand and gravel every year, according to UN research, enough to build a wall 27 metres high by 27 metres wide around the planet.
Sand is the most-exploited resource after water. But unlike water, it is not recognised as a key strategic resource by governments and industry, something, the UN says, that must change and fast.
The UN report makes the case for greater monitoring of extraction and supply chains, measures to compensate for the associated loss of animal and plant species as well as the uneven social and economic impacts of sand mining.
Given the extent and growing awareness of human reliance on sand for economic development in industries, ranging from construction to IT manufacturing and a number of other booming sectors, the researchers said a fundamental shift in the understanding and valuation of sand was urgently needed.
“If our entire development depends on sand, it should be recognised as a strategic material,” said Pascal Peduzzi, director of the Global Resource Information Database of the UN Environment Programme and lead author of the report.
Sand extraction takes a number of different forms, from the dredging of lakes and rivers to various kinds of land mining and the crushing of rock, and is carried out by both large firms and individuals with rudimentary tools. The current rate of activity far outstrips that at which naturally occurring sand reserves can be replenished.
An international standard on extraction is needed, the report said, if the material is to be regulated effectively and governed equitably. Among its recommendations are the establishment of legal frameworks for mineral ownership of aggregates.
“The aim is to shift the focus on to sand as a commodity and a material that should be treated in the same light as other mineral commodities – be that mineral deposits, water, oil or gas,” said Dr Chris Hackney, a researcher at Newcastle University and another of the report’s authors.
“These are all regulated from the local to national levels, operating within standardised international frameworks. That’s completely lacking at the moment for sand and aggregates.”
A lack of governance has up to now created an informational black hole around the procurement and use of sand. The Global Aggregates Information Network estimated aggregates production rose 4.9% in the last year from 42.2bn tonnes in 2020 to 44.3bn tonnes in 2021. But the UN report noted: “Globally, the sand supply base is not known and only aggregate production estimates are available.”
Meanwhile, sand extraction continues to drive biodiversity loss, exacerbates flood risk in removing natural barriers to storm surge such as dunes, affects the livelihoods of fishing communities and even fuel conflict. Its end uses are also some of the biggest industrial contributors to the climate crisis, with recent estimates suggesting the concrete sector, if it were measured as a country, would have the third-highest carbon emissions in the world.
Emerging research suggests more than 1,000 threatened “red list” species of animals and plants are affected by sand and gravel extraction – with that figure thought to extend to 24,000 species overall.
Yet the lack of formal recognition means sand “falls between the cracks” of policy and legislative frameworks in many countries, with its impacts hard to grasp for the consumer and previously little onus on or imperative for governing bodies to act, said Kiran Pereira, a researcher and author of Sand Stories: Surprising truths about the global sand crisis and the quest for sustainable solutions.
“Personally, I think it is difficult to understand the scale of extraction in general,” said Pereira, who also contributed to the UN report.
“However, this resource is not consumed evenly,” she added, citing the report’s recommendations for reuse of existing construction products, alongside incorporation of alternative construction materials and practices in developed countries.
The appetite for sand is expected to grow considerably over coming years, with the global population predicted to reach nearly 10 billion before 2050, by which time it is thought about 70% of people in the world will live in urban areas.
A standards vacuum also has implications for the human cost of sand mining in parts of the world where governance and oversight is weak and the material is in high demand. More than 400 people in India – including government officials – are thought to have died in violence and accidents related to sand mining since 2020.
In Vietnam’s Mekong delta, which is normally subject to regulation, illegal sand extraction has reportedly increased during the pandemic, with the resources of authorities stretched and their priorities elsewhere.
The demand for aggregates is again soaring, as governments around the world pursue Covid recovery strategies anchored in construction-led growth.
Hackney said standardisation would assist efforts to establish the extent of sand extraction that was made up by illegal and non-legal practices, which have up to now been complicated by a number of factors – , and act as a deterrent.
“Having those standards across the board, the frameworks and the resources for agencies at various levels to enforce them would certainly go some way to achieving this,” he said.
“This needs to come in tandem with improved monitoring of supply chains and scrutiny of links between governments, industries and other interests involved. But, together with that, the kind of top-down regulation we recommend could make quite a break in those chains.
“The whole package of these principles would make this activity less appealing and worthwhile for actors participating in it currently.”