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Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands. Still shot is from video taken by a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft (May 2015). REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters.

“Sand is cheap as a measure of its extraction and transportation. Its true cost as an non-renewable resource is not factored into what is actually the true price per grain of sand.”

After water, the largest volume of natural material used to support our global growth is sand. According to a special report by the UN Environmental Program, “Sand: Rarer Than One Thinks”, up to 59 billion tons of aggregated sand and gravel is extracted annually, primarily to enable the production of cement for use in the burgeoning construction industry. A ton of cement required some 6 to 7 more tons of sand and gravel, enough, according to the report “to build a wall 27 meters high by 27 meters wide around the equator.”

China is by far the biggest supplier and the biggest user, about 58% of total supply and demand. To support its recent exponential growth, China’s use has increased 437.5% in the past two decades. In every nation, every place, every road, and every building, sand, extracted from quarries, riverbeds and coastal marine areas is being removed from where it was created by centuries of geological processing, transported to faraway places, transformed into every form of construction, and used as a base element in the growth-driven alchemy of the modern economy.

The impact on the environment is enormous, with measurable destructive consequence for biodiversity, land loss, hydrological function, water supply, infrastructure, climate, landscape and extreme events. Inland and coastal erosion, change of water flows, flood regulation, and marine currents, lowering of water table and pollution, damage to bridges and embankments, transported emissions through cement production, and vulnerability to weather events such as severe storm, drought, and coastal surge: these are just a few of the serious outcomes of such massive, localized extraction.

Beach renewal is a use perhaps familiar to us all. But consider the same required to expand Singapore to provide some 130 square kilometers of land reclaimed from the sea by land fill. Most of that sand came from Indonesia, the rest from Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, impacting deteriorating those environments and creating political tensions that forced a negotiated ban. Or consider Dubai and its creation of artificial islands that used some 385 million tons of sand and 10 million cubic meters of rock to construct the Palm Jumeriah, the Palm Jebel Ali, and the World Island Project, some 300 islands representing a map of the world, at a combined cost of billions, all in the prospect of need for office and residential space for the development of a new modern world city. The Burj Khalifa Tower, at 828 meters arguably the highest building in the world, sits at the center of this development as a hubristic assertion of Dubai’s economic nationalism; it was constructed using massive amounts of sand imported not from the Arabian peninsula, but Australia.

Much of this extraction comes from illegal coastal mining, transported by smugglers, financed by organized crime, and enabled by lack of regulation and bureaucratic corruption. Ironically, in Morocco, a stretch of beach between Safi and Essouira was transformed into a rocky landscape by extraction of all its sand with the intent to build hotels, roads, and tourism-related infrastructure elsewhere dependent on the beauty of the sand beaches that were there left untouched.

Sand is cheap, often priced only as a measure of its extraction and transportation. Its true cost as an non-renewable resource; its detriment by channel erosion, turbidity, changed pH and sediment in its surrounding ecosystem; its disturbance of the benthic fauna and lowered water table of fish spawning habitat, feeding patterns and the livelihood of local fishers; its contribution to emissions through CO2 release in cement manufacture and dust to the atmospheric conditions locally and regionally; its under-priced and untaxed value; and its subversion of governance and economic return for the places and governments from where it is mined — none of these costs are factored into what is actually the true price per grain of sand.

A UNEP survey of relevant policies shows little hope for international protection or oversight of this problem. No international conventions exist to regulate the extraction, use, or traded of land-based sand. The International Seabed Authority seems without effect. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea pertains in part, but of course many of the primary parties are not signatories of that treaty. Regional agreements do oversee — directly and indirectly — some aspects of such activity in the Northeast Atlantic, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean, and some national or state coastal policies may apply, but that have not addressed the need for international standards, agreement, enforcement, and action to address the problem. Consider China’s blatant construction of islands in the South China Sea, as a geo-political extension of its economic zone and geo-political standing. Where has all that sand come from? Ask that question, and meet this expression: “Go pound sand.”

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean, providing links and proactive services to individuals, aquariums, science centers, educational institutions, governmental and non-governmental organizations to build public awareness and a global constituency for the ocean.

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Dedicated to sharing information about ocean issues: climate to trade, culture to governance. The sea connects all things. Online at WorldOceanObservatory.org.

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