“Cheap as sand” was a phrase you sometimes heard half a century ago. But no more. The humble material is in such overheated global demand that “sand mafias” chase it, at least one writer describes it as a conflict mineral alongside blood diamonds and cobalt, and demand from oil and gas “fracking” operations is a major factor driving the business.
“Every civilization, kingdom, empire, developed and developing nation—almost since the first construction—has relied on sand,” clean energy policy analyst Joel Stronberg writes in a deeply-sourced, two-part analysis in Resilience.org. The material is essential to construction, fracking for hydrocarbons, and industrial processes, including the manufacture of glass and silicon for photovoltaic solar generation. “Without it, Donald’s beloved wall would tumble faster than Jericho’s—no trumpets needed.”
But “rarely in history,” Stronberg writes, “has the cash value of this ubiquitous commodity ever been greater and the potential supply lower.” The result is a booming but shadowy and poorly-regulated market in which extraction—by basket and industrial-scale dredger—far exceeds natural regeneration of sand, and does incalculable damage to ecosystems. Singapore’s expansion by 130 square kilometres of filled land, for example, “erased two dozen Indonesian islands in the process.”
Annual demand for silica sand is growing at 5.5% a year. Even more voracious demand for fracking sand is forecast to climb by 60% by next year over 2014.
In his second installment, Stronberg cites The Economist’s finding that “depletion of existing [sand] reserves is damaging the environment. Dredging in rivers and seas pollutes natural habitats, affecting local fishing and farming industries. Beaches in Morocco and the Caribbean have been stripped of sand, lowering their capacity to absorb stormy weather.”
Nonetheless, financial incentives for illicit mining are often irresistible. A small Chinese operator with four boats and a crew of 12 “admits to dredging up 850 cubic metres of sand a day,” Stronberg writes. That’s “a bit over US$11,000 any day he works; he admits to annual earnings of $225,000.” Bigger rivals on the same river can pull up six times as much. Illegal sand and gravel mining has also been reported in Jamaica, Nigeria, Israel, and Malaysia, while aggregate mining from rivers has raised ire in British Columbia.