Are We Running Out of Sand?

It can be easy to take something for granted that every time you see it, it seems to go on forever. It’s like an infinite path to the horizon, a landscape that never ends. This is sand, and even though just a simple trip to the beach can make it feel like you’re perpetually surrounded by it at that moment, it doesn’t end there. It’s helped form the entire world around you.  

Sand is the foundation humanity has built itself on. It’s also the thing that built the literal foundation of the building you are living in. It’s the thing in the screen you are watching this on. It’s also the thing that’s running the thing you are viewing this on. It’s in the toothpaste you brushed your teeth with last night, and the road you walked on to get your coffee this morning. If there’s so much of it, why is the assumption we all make that sand will always find its way in the wind to where we need it to be so dangerous? Let me explain.   

Let’s start with the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. You know, the hyper-industrial, larger-than-life artificial archipelago that was created out of nowhere? What better way to let the world know you’ve made it than taking a selfie on the Palm Jumeirah, or better yet, owning property on it. But ridiculous displays of wealth aside, the Palm Jumeirah is interesting for many other reasons. It was built out of nothing. It is part of a growing series of what are being labeled as land reclamation projects, which, if you ask me, is a weird concept to apply to this situation. There was no land there to re-claim. You are not re-claiming anything if there was nothing to claim to begin with. Dubai essentially dredged 90 million cubic meters (3.2 billion cubic feet) of sand to create a palm-shaped series of islands, all for the spectacle of it.

Lexicology aside, this has become an increasingly popular approach to land expansion for a number of reasons. Trying to claim territory from other countries is difficult. It can lead to diplomatic friction, turmoil and war. Well, then, why not just make some on your own? And in a world that is continuing to be more populated each day, the demand for more space is high and ever-increasing. Several countries have responded to this by augmenting their landmass by dredging and depositing truly mind-boggling amounts of sand near their borders. Dubai is obviously one of the more recognizable examples in this regard, but did you know Singapore increased its area by 20% through land reclamation projects? You might not know the Marina Bay Sands, one of the world’s most expensive structures with a price tag of $5.7 billion and an architectural symbol of Singapore’s success and Asia’s potential, is built on land that did not exist just a few decades ago. 

Other countries, like the Netherlands and Bangladesh, have been working together on land reclamation projects for decades. For Bangladesh, it’s about creating more space to combat an escalating homelessness crisis in Bangladesh caused by river erosion. The Netherlands is providing its expertise based on past experiences dealing with rising sea levels. The case of Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah is particularly interesting because it’s almost the exact opposite of this need. It’s more of a want than anything else, but if you have what appears to be never-ending desert resources right there in front of you, why not put them to use through land reclamation? Just move what you already have from point A to point B, then amaze the world with the results. There’s only one catch, and it’s a big one. Dubai didn’t use its own desert sand. Instead, it decided to dredge the Persian Gulf. Another Dubai engineering marvel, the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, required purchasing sand from Australia.

Despite seemingly having mountains of sand at its disposal, Dubai is unable to use the grains in its own backyard. It all comes down to the molecular structure of the sand in question. What you see in a desert is shaped by the wind. What is found in riverbeds, such as that from Australia that Dubai bought, is formed after a slow-moving series of intense geological steps. The resulting differences creates sand that bonds differently, making the riverbed variety far more suitable for construction purposes. It binds better and is more stable, all of which is crucial if you are about to build billions of dollars’ worth of real estate on top of it. 

Right now, our industrial needs can be met with only a fraction of the world’s sand. But it’s only really produced through geological processes that take centuries. The rate at which the modern world is using sand is truly astonishing and it’s only set to increase.China, for example, has used more concrete, which is primarily comprised of sand, in the last three years than the United States has in the entire 20th century. The construction of The World Islands off the coast of Dubai reportedly had to be stopped because of a bottleneck on sand imports.

With projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which stretches from East Asia all the way to Europe, the demand is expected to grow significantly. Estimated to cost nearly $4 trillion, the BRI is raising concerns because of the sheer amount of raw materials needed for it. The sand that will be required is threatening livelihoods and ecological systems. Most of us are unaware of the sheer amount of sand that is being used around the world. We are, however, more familiar with water usage. Well, if it helps to put things in perspective, sand is the most used raw material in the world after water. And to create cement for construction purposes requires both sand and water in massive quantities. Trying to make a close proximity to riverbed sand from desert sand takes up even more water. 

For the sand dredged from the Persian Gulf, engineers still had to shoot everything with jets of water to saturate it. And we don’t just need sand for the construction of new things. We also need it to maintain old things. For all the resources the Palm Jumeirah islands have required thus far, they need much more. NASA imaging is showing that they are sinking at the rate of 5 mm (0.2 inches) per year. Things we build using sand are making us need more sand. And it’s starting to disappear, all over the world. Florida relies heavily on its beaches and tourism for its economy. But every year it’s losing parts of those beaches due to natural processes and rising sea levels. Other beach-sensitive economies are facing a similar predicament.

Indonesia, for example, has not just seen an increase in receding shorelines on some of its islands. Entire islands have gone missing. Again, I am the first to admit the sheer absurdity of that statement. An island is a very enormous thing. It does not simply vanish. And yet, here we are. There was even an incident where a Jamaican island was “stolen”. Five hundred truckloads of sand were taken from a resort under construction and allegedly sold to local rivals to help fill out their beaches. At the current rate, we are simply using too much sand for nature to replenish it in time. 

Realizing this fact, countries such as Cambodia that were very willing to export sand in the past have now stopped. And when you have too many people gunning for a very important, finite resource, you have cartels, you have violence, you have smuggling. Which, again, sounds so strange. Like, why do you need to smuggle something that is literally everywhere? And yet, as astonishing as it sounds, sand mafias are very much real. India, for example, has the most notable example, where nearly 75,000 men are working to illegally mine sand. It is technically the largest criminal organization in the country. People have been murdered for daring to expose their activities. 

Singapore has also been accused of illegally importing sand from Cambodia, claims that the country has denied. The United Nations has stated that syndicates formed once sand resources were being clamped down on. However, the problem was deeper. A lot of the people who made their livelihoods out of collecting and transporting sand were suddenly out of work once the mining of it was outlawed. You have a very large group whose jobs were taken away from them, and since the demand for sand is in no way being reduced, they still have reasons to be engaged in the sand trade, legally or illegally. Depending on where you live and how directly affected you have been by this crisis, it might be easy to say that we should stop using so much sand. But it is simply not fair to the countries that are still developing. 

China’s use compared to that of the United States might be jaw-dropping, but for a country that is rapidly growing, there is simply no alternative that is as cheap, functional and readily available. The Belt and Road Initiative is consuming a lot of sand, yes. But it is also projected to lift 7.6 million people out of extreme poverty. The U.N. recommends that the world recognizes sand for what it is. A precious finite resource that we will run out of if we are not careful. Laws need to be set in place about where and how it can be extracted. It also recommends that we see the problem in a multifaceted way. This includes acknowledging the effect that regulations would have an effect on livelihoods as well. 

Those that back the illegal and harmful export of sand from vulnerable regions still need to put food on their plates. Because of this, any sensible set of measures would not just be to try and stop all sand trade, but also ensure these people have an incentive not to tap into vulnerable sand reserves in the first place. There are things on the technical front that also need to be considered. Sure, desert sand can be converted into its more useful counterpart, but you would have to replace naturally-occurring geological processes with expensive machinery and even more resources, including water. That’s why scientists are busy trying to develop alternatives to natural sand, which include recycling demolished concrete and even rammed clay earth. 

We are still not quite mission-critical, which is exactly why we must act now. The construction industry is notoriously hard to change, and we need time to get the ball rolling. After reading so much about sand, how much of it we need and how much of it we’ll require in the future, it is honestly a little odd at just how little attention its disappearance is getting. We are all aware of the fossil fuel shortage that is looming. What about the shortage of a resource that is used much more? It is truly remarkable how much impact grains of sand can have. Social, political, economic, climate — sand affects them all. Civilization has been built on sand. It is somewhat poetic that we’ve always had this fascination with sand and time. The effortless flow of sand, the idea of it being there in the wind, one grain at a time. Slowly, but surely though, it’s all gone. If we’re not careful, the thing that has built us might just be the cause for our demise. 

“Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;

Mock on, Mock on, 'tis all in vain.

You throw the sand against the wind,

And the wind blows it back again.”-William Blake

But, what if it doesn’t?