The vast sandy deserts, white sandy beaches are so very familiar to humans that it is considered an infinite, available resource.
But in reality, no matter how endless an asset is, it will be exhausted, and so will the sand.
Starting in the 2017s, several scientific reports showed that the amount of sand worldwide is seriously declining, and this is having a lot of impact on the environment, endangering the community, even creates violent conflict.
And this warning somewhat came true a few years after it. A series of homicides took place in 2019. A South African businessman was shot dead. Two Indian villagers were killed in a gunfight. A Mexican environmental activist was assassinated. These killings, thousands of miles apart, had the same cause: a wave of violence triggered by a fierce battle for sand. Specifically, from a shortage due to excessive sand mining.
For many years, researchers have tried to improve the quality of its construction, so that it is most efficient and durable. However, the process of exploiting raw materials for construction has not been properly considered.
The demand for sand has continuously skyrocketed
According to experts, the demand for sand has skyrocketed over time, plus uncontrolled exploitation to meet that demand is the perfect formula that causes a sand crisis.
Sand and gravel are currently two of the most used minerals in the world. Especially sand, when this is the main raw material in cement, concrete, and a component that makes glass and electronics.
Sand is currently the second most consumed natural resource after water. According to a UN assessment report, the amount of sand globally used in 2012 alone was enough to build a 27-meter-wide and 27-meter-wide concrete wall around the equator. Up to 50 billion tons of sand are mined, dredged, and stolen each year to satisfy the world’s thirst for infrastructure construction.
The main cause of the sand crisis is the rapid urbanization rate. Each year the world’s population increases, while more and more people are moving from rural to urban areas, especially in developing countries. Across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, cities are expanding at an unprecedented rate. The number of people living in urban areas has more than quadrupled since 1950 to about 4.2 billion in 2018.
The United Nations predicts about 2.5 billion people will become urban dwellers in the next three decades. Asia makes up 54% of the urban population, followed by Europe (13%) and Africa (13%).
It is worth mentioning that not all sand can be used. While desert sands are largely useless for humans because they are too slippery, smooth, and difficult to adhere to in concrete production. So despite possessing abundant desert sands, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had to import sand from Australia to build the highest Burj Khalifa tower in the world (828 m).
Meanwhile, the amount of sand from rivers and beaches is limited. Page Business Insider quoted scientists showing that 90% of the world’s beaches have been encroached about 40 meters since 2008 due to sand mining. Therefore, this sand is “evaporating” at a much faster rate than the natural accretion rate.
In 2010, a total of about 11 billion tons of sand were mined for global construction purposes only. In particular, the highest rate belongs to countries in the Asia-Pacific region, followed by Europe and North America.
According to a study by the Freedonia Group (USA), demand for construction sand increases by 5.2% annually and reach 51.7 billion tons by 2019, double the supply rate of all rivers. in the world combined.
Not to mention that according to some non-governmental organizations, these figures are not necessarily true, as many countries even hide the amount of sand mined for construction, such as shale mining or beach reclamation.
The demand for sand mining is so intense that in the world, countless riverbeds, riverside alluvial beaches, and beaches … have been scratched off, cultivated land and forests torn apart to hunt for construction sand or silica sand, high purity used in the production of glass, high-tech products such as chips, solar panels…
In the past, sand was the “self” mineral of countries. But due to soaring demand, sand mining in some countries was officially banned, making it an export commodity on a global scale. And when the profit is high, the exploitation continues to be accelerated, causing many serious consequences.
The harm cannot be ignored
“The sand problem is surprising many people. It should be understood that we cannot extract 50 billion tons per year of any material without causing a heavy impact on the planet and human life,” said Pascal Peduzzi, a researcher at the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), stated.
The most noticeable damage is to the environment, especially in countries with huge sand resources.
In Kenya, rivers meander through the arid land. During the rainy season, water seeps into the sand layer and is stored. During the dry season, nearly 1 million people in Makueni dig large holes in the sand to get water for daily use. However, the sand bandits have turned the sand river beds into bedrock and in the rainy season, the water can no longer be retained.
Without water, the river ceases to exist. Such is the case with the Kilome Ikolya River in Makueni. “We call it the dead river,” said a resident Anthony. No one gets water from this river anymore.” While in the old days, this river was still full of water and sand.
Excessive sand exploitation easily changes the ecosystems on rivers and coastal areas, causing serious soil erosion. Also, it pushes species to endangered, including river dolphins, crocodiles, and fisheries in general …
Take for example the case of the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) – a crocodile that often lives on the rivers of Asia. They are inherently on the list of endangered ones, but the situation is getting more serious, as man-made sand extraction causes their habitat to change.
Not to mention, sand mining in the sea also puts people living around in danger. As the coast shrinks, people are more vulnerable to typhoons and floods, such as the typhoon in Sri Lanka in 2004.
Besides, human health is also a notable factor. Sand mining accidentally leaves pits of standing water, making it the perfect place to feed mosquitoes or spread other dangerous bacteria.
The action of the Sand Mafia
For some, sand is life. For others, sand is simply… money! Scientists warned of the risk of a serious sand shortage crisis due to the rapid increase in construction demand, leading to the birth of many criminal groups that smuggled and traded this item on the black market.
In poor areas like Makueni, Kenya, people have to save themselves. Local police officer Geoffrey Kasyoki is famous in his community for bravely fighting against sand bandits.
In February 2011, Kasyoki was attacked and killed by a group of young people in the middle of the day. Everyone knows that the culprit is the sand bandits. Widow Irene said: “He was killed for daring to stop sand bandits.”
In recent years, sand has become a hot and super-profitable commodity for the mafia gangs. Criminal gangs began to enter the trade, digging tons of sand to sell to the black market. In many parts of Latin America and Africa, according to human rights groups, children are forced into slavery in the sand mines. The gangs bypass the law in ways by organized crime – like paying for corrupt police and officials to let them blatantly operate. And if necessary, they can attack and even kill those who dare to stop them.
In India, Sand Mafia is one of the most famous and largest criminal groups, employing up to 75,000 people to dive into the river to exploit illegal sand.
Despite working 12 hours and scuba diving about 200 times, these workers are only paid 15 USD per day. Not only exploiting illegal sand and exploiting labor, but Sand Mafia is also involved in a series of murders to win the area.
While the Indian government is struggling to find a solution, sand mining and smuggling are still rampant and criminals are ready to oppose the authorities.
The countries in the region that exported sand to Singapore recently banned their sale due to concerns of serious environmental damage and depletion of resources.
Currently, some scientists are looking to replace sand in concrete with other materials, including ash (produced during production at coal-fired power plants), shredded plastic, rice husks, and even crushed oil palm bark. Others are developing concrete using less sand as well as concrete grinding and recycling technologies.
Copper slag can be used to partially replace natural sand as a fine aggregate in concrete as pavement without reducing concrete’s adhesion, compressive strength, and flexural strength.
In addition to copper slag, blast furnace slag is also used as a substitute for natural sand in construction. When replacing the sand with blast furnace slag, the compressive strength of the cement increases.
Another material that can replace natural sand in construction is fly ash. The mechanical properties of special concrete using 30% fly ash instead of natural sand show a favorable strength development pattern, increasing over time. Stone dust from stone crushers combined with fly ash can replace 100% natural sand in construction.
The use of fly ash in concrete production offers benefits such as reduced cement consumption, increased resistance to sulfate, reduced alkali-silica reaction, and reduced permeability.
Besides, recycled sand and aggregate from construction waste have 10-15% lower strength than plain concrete, which can be used as a substitute for natural sand for non-structural applications such as floors and objects. fillings.
Another option is to take advantage of desert sand, which has a huge supply, but the problem is that the desert sand is very smooth, smooth, smooth, without adhesion. That is the difficulty facing a startup called Finite. The company is developing a building material out of desert sand, but this biodegradable and reusable material is only suitable for temporary structures.
Time to treat sand fairly?
Despite the damage, sand mining is still being done very vigorously, as most cannot imagine the level of danger of it. Currently, there are only a few organizations that stand out to propagate, but not effective.
According to Mr. Peduzzi, although it was mentioned on the United Nations agenda in 2019, problems related to sand and the environment are still satisfactorily resolved on a global scale.
“Many countries’ development policies do not even mention where sand comes from, for example, how is the sand coming from, its environmental and social impact. Therefore, a lot of work remains to be done.” Mr. Peduzzi emphasized. “Look to the future, industrialization, urbanization, and population growth … will all drive an explosive demand for sand. It’s time for us to wake up.”
Louise Gallagher, environmental management team leader at the UNEP / GRID-Geneva Global Sand Observation Initiative, says problems with sand are becoming “more common and complex.”
Ms. Gallagher pointed out four priorities in the management of sand resources in the world. First, collaborate on setting global standards in all fields. Second, offer more viable and economical alternative materials than sand from sea and river. Third, adjust the legal framework on the environment, society, and businesses in the financial sector, including sand. Fourth, aim for the appropriate use of sand on a national, regional, and global scale. And finally, the right advocacy and propaganda to change the perception of sand.
Hopefully, in the near future, organizations and governments will develop a strategy for safer and more environmentally friendly sand mining. The time has come, the sand must be treated just like any other finite mineral, or else the future of Earth will be more tragic.