Sand is crucial for building projects, notably the production of concrete. Sand is also used for coastal defence to shore up beaches from rising sea levels (thus protecting property behind the beach from storm surges). And with a global boom in construction, as the world’s population both grows and becomes more urbanised, all this means that sand is being consumed at such a furious rate (demand has doubled since 2004, between 2011 and 2013 China used more cement than America used during the entire 21st century) that demand is exceeding supply. And in many parts of the world stocks are now being rapidly depleted.
Now at face value you might well say that this is ludicrous, how can the world be running out of sand! I mean the Sahara desert is full of the stuff. However, that statement highlights two problems, firstly most of the world’s desert sand is the wrong kind of sand, its too fine grained (some goes for the stuff on the ocean bed). So much so that many Gulf states actually import sand from overseas. And secondly there’s the matter of costs. Sand is heavy and transporting it long distances can greatly increase the costs. Now while some can simply afford to pay whatever it costs (such as the oil rich gulf states), for others, notably those in poorer parts of the world, paying these higher costs simply isn’t feasible.
As a result, in much the same way as a shortage of conventional fossil fuels has led to a shift towards alternative unconventional sources, which are often worse for the environment, the same pattern is being repeated with sand. Sand is now being obtained from alternative sources by dredging, digging up rivers, etc. This is causing significant environmental damage and even risking conflict.
This is becoming a very serious problem in the developing world, where the locals simply can’t afford to rely on alternative materials or import it from abroad. Criminal gangs are now openly involved in the illegal sand trade, which is sometimes shipped overseas to neighbouring countries where a higher price will be paid.
Inevitably as the environmental problems associated with sand grow and the costs spiral, which will create an ever strong incentive for criminal activity, theft and murder, eventually alternatives will have to be found. For example using steel (which is more easily recycled, but it has a high carbon footprint) or low carbon materials such as wood. Although, again, this might not be an option in poorer parts of the world, where they simply can’t afford to pay the cost difference.
So we end up with an all too familiar tale, of a material which the cornucopians tell us there’s an infinite supply of. But in truth, only a small fraction of those resources are actually viable reserves, which can’t be extracted at any arbitrary rate of our choosing. And with the low hanging fruit running out, we’re having to go to further and more extreme lengths, running faster to stand still, while the associated environmental degradation grows.