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Challenges of commercial sand extraction

July 2019: New evidence shows that rapid urbanisation is causing more sand to be extracted from rivers and beaches than can be replaced naturally. However, the informal industry is unregulated with only limited monitoring capacity of extraction methods or source origins.

Summary

New evidence shows that rapid urbanisation is causing more sand to be extracted from rivers and beaches than can be replaced naturally. However, the informal industry is unregulated with only limited monitoring capacity of extraction methods or source origins.

Information

Sand and gravel form key components of modern life and serve as key ingredients in making concrete, glass and electronics. Rapid urbanisation is leading to extraction rates exceeding natural renewal abilities with projections that from 2000-2100 there will be a 300% increase in demand and a 400% increase in price, outstripping natural supply capacities. With desert grains being too smooth to be used in industrial application, most sand is being extracted from riverbeds and beaches; yet, there is no accurate documentation of sand trade or extraction, giving rise to illegal and unsustainable sand mining methods with no means of accurately documenting extraction sources, global sand availability, or yearly extraction rates. For example, Singapore imported 80 million tonnes of sediment from Cambodia between 2006 and 2016 with the latter only providing export documentation for 3.2 million tonnes.

Implications & Opportunities

Unmonitored and unregulated extraction and trade of sand can lead to severe consequences for river ecology, infrastructures, national economies, and livelihoods of people living alongside river corridors. For example, sand mining in Chinas has lowered water tables, reduced drinking water, hastened river-bed scour, and damaged bridges and embankments. Hence, researchers are calling for a monitoring programme to address current data and knowledge gaps needed to support the transition towards sustainable extraction methods. Further, incentives for recycling concrete or developing alternative for sand such as crushed rocks or plastic waste material could reduce the amount of illegal sand extraction and promote more sustainable consumption. Nonetheless, rivers often span several countries and sand scarcity cannot be studied in geographical isolation but requires comprehensive policy frameworks and public engagement.

Limitations

There is only limited data availability and reduced data reliability informing the study of commercial sand extraction. In light of this, the study’s estimates are only approximate projections and require further, detailed research.


Sources

Bendixen, M., Best, J., Hackney, C., Lønsmann Iversen, L. (2019). Time is running out for sand. Nature, 571 (7763): 29 DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-02042-4

United Nations Environment Programme. (2019). Sand and Sustainability: Finding New Solutions for Environmental Governance of Global Sand Resources. Nairobi: UNEP.

Business Standard. (2019). The earth is running out of sand. Retrieved from https://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ani/the-earth-is-running-out-of-sand-study-119070600733_1.html

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Adele Wiliams

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The views expressed in these external research papers are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.