Many people are unaware of the fact that sand is the second-largest resource extracted and traded by human beings, just behind water. The overconsumption and mindless extraction of this resource are creating a sand crisis.
A UN report released in May this year warns that large-scale extraction of sand from rivers has increased pollution, lowered water aquifer levels, triggered incidents of flooding, and worsened the occurrence of drought. At present, the global demand for sand and gravel stands at around 40 to 50 billion tons per year. International trade in these resources is expected to grow at 5.5 percent annually. The UN calls sand one of the “major sustainability challenges of the 21st century.”
“Shifting consumption patterns, growing populations, increasing urbanization, and infrastructure development have increased demand for sand three-fold over the last two decades. Further to this, damming and extraction have reduced sediment delivery from rivers to many coastal areas, leading to reduced deposits in river deltas and accelerated beach erosion,” according to the UN Environment Programme. The depletion of sand has serious consequences. According to some estimates, sea levels are expected to rise by about three feet by 2100. With sand being extracted from the coasts, this would mean that many areas along coastlines could sink underwater.
A report suggests that sand mining worsened the impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami in Sri Lanka. In the U.S., Hurricane Harvey caused US$125 billion in flood damages in 2017, which could have been less if sand mining in the San Jacinto River had been curtailed. The extraction of sand from the Mekong Delta is threatening its sustainability. It also results in greater intrusion of saltwater into rivers, which ultimately threatens the water and food safety in the region.
Health issues are another major result of unmitigated sand mining. “Extraction activities create new standing pools of water that can become breeding sites for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The pools may also play an important role in the spread of emerging diseases such as Buruli ulcer in West Africa, a bacterial skin infection,” according to Business Standard.
The UN report suggests proper policy planning and regulation at the global level to tackle the problems of sand extraction. Existing practices and standards in sand mining have to be updated and customized for national circumstances. A system to accurately monitor sand production, consumption, and management should be set up. At the UN Environment Assembly where the report was presented, the policymakers passed a Mineral Resource Governance Resolution that called for sustainable sand use.
While sand extraction is being seen as a problem globally, some in Greenland see vast economic potential in the activity. Greenland is responsible for about 8 percent of the total suspended sediment to the world’s oceans.
“Warming temperatures are causing increasing melt from the Greenland Ice Sheet, and with more melt, more silt, sand, and gravel are transported to the coast,” Mette Bendixen, a Research Fellow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), writes in Sustainability Community.
Greenland currently operates as a self-governing nation under the Kingdom of Denmark. Half of its national budget is subsidized by a block grant by the Danish government. With social costs rising every year due to an aging population, many believe that sand mining will provide the revenues needed for Greenland to maintain its living standards.