Commodities: sand supply may dry up

1 September 2017

The ever-increasing demand for sand in the construction industry is causing a shortage of this essential aggregate.

Unless you’re a six-year old at the park, or perhaps an avid beach goer, there is very little about sand that is interesting. Except that, surprisingly, the world is running out of it – at least the useful kind.

Sand – alongside gravel – is an indispensable aggregate for concrete and asphalt. Roads, bridges, damns and buildings: none of them would be possible without sand. The innocuous granules are an indispensable part of modern life.

Natural sand deposits take thousands of years to form, and are being extracted faster than they can be replenished. The UN Environmental Programme estimated 29.6bn tonnes of sand in 2012 alone was used for concrete.

The problem is that not all sand is made equal. Desert sand, by far the most abundant, is useless for construction – the grains are too smooth. The skyscrapers in the deserts of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are all built with imported aggregate – the Burj Khalifa used Australian sand – and in 2014 alone the UAE imported $456m worth.

And sand extraction has a dark side. The angular surface of water-worn sand is ideal for building but carries a heavy environmental toll. Dredging rivers or the ocean floor destroys underwater habitats and biodiversity, causes costal erosion and can increase the frequency and impact of flooding. Mining sand can have a big ecological impact too.

Then there is the illicit sand production, which carries a human toll. Sand mafias have been reported from India to Jamaica, to name just two, bringing all of the negative connotations associated with organised crime.

But the need for sand is unlikely to abate. It is often cited that in the three years between 2011 and 2013 China used more concrete (6.6bn tonnes) than the US used this century. The UN World Urbanisation Prospects report estimated the there could be another 2.5bn city dwellers by 2050 and 41 ‘megacities’ by 2030 – there are 28 today.

These cities are going to be built, and they will be built with sand.

US sand and gravel demand

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