While everybody knows that water is a limited and much sought after resource, a new UN report announced that the world’s second most exploited resource is also in grave danger: sand. Global demand has surged to 50 billion tons annually and continues to grow. Without urgent action, the UN said we will face a “sand crisis.”
Yes, sand is that free stuff sitting on beaches. Deserts are lousy with it. But it’s a crucial ingredient in road construction, and in the cement, concrete and glass of buildings. Sand is our most mined material. And as cities grow, sand is in demand. It’s extracted from deltas, coastlines, lakes and riverbeds, causing deltas to sink and some rivers to flow backwards. And sure, that sand will eventually replenish itself. It will just take several hundred thousand years.
The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) new report identified 10 strategies to avert the sand crisis. The first is to recognize sand as a strategic resource. Others range from straightforward-sounding plans like “map, monitor and report sand resources” and “source responsibly” to the more theoretical, such as “enable a paradigm shift to a regenerative and circular future.”
“As the global urban population will increase to represent over 68% of the world population by 2050, and as cities expand and urban infrastructure is upgraded, demand for sand will only increase,” writes Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, director of the Economy Division of the UNEP in the study’s foreword. “Yet, sand in the natural environment supports fisheries, biodiversity, protects against coastal erosion and salinization of aquifers, and serves as a natural filtration of water. Until now we may have considered sand as a common material; it is time to reassess and recognize sand as a strategic material.”
For those of us who equate sand with such innocent pastimes as building sand castles, it’s hard to wrap our minds around the idea of a black market in sand. But it’s true. International gangsters are ready to knock that sand bucket right out of Junior’s hands. “Organized crime has taken over the sand business,” said Vince Beiser on NPR. “And they do what mafias do everywhere. They bribe police. They bribe cops. And if you really get in their way, they will kill you.”
Lead image via Pexels