A ‘scarce’ symbol of abundance

I’m coming back to this blog after eons. Although there was no dearth of topics, did not write for a variety of reasons. The most important of which was that I was distressed by my latest research findings and I did not want to add to the gloom and doom literature on environmental issues all around us. Since it is the start of a new year, I begin afresh with faith in my heart that there is still hope. Today I write about a resource that is intriguingly and ironically perceived as being abundant yet scarce, quotidian yet precious. Much like breath that nourishes our very existence, but is rarely thought about, this resource has come to be the linchpin of modern life all across the globe. Yet, beyond a few select circles, we hardly ever pay attention to it. The resource I write about is – sand. Because I have so much to say on the topic, I intend on presenting this information in bite-sized chunks, so there will be a couple of pieces to this topic. Stay with me till the end…

‘I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore…’(Genesis)

Sand is a quintessential symbol of abundance for people of many faiths and cultures. In fact within popular discourse, the bounty of sand is deemed to be so large that it is considered impossible to count the number of grains of sand on Earth and by extension, it implies an infinite supply. Mathematicians at the University of Hawaii have tried to guess how many grains of sand there are on the world’s beaches. Their calculations pointed them to the following number: 7,500,000,000,000,000,000, or seven quintillion five quadrillion grains of sand (McAllister, 1994-2003). Definite as this number is, however, it only represents the sand on beaches and excludes sand found around rivers and on the ocean bed. Thus it does not bring us any closer to really understanding how much sand there is on this planet. For this reason, I was very surprised to read reports on scarcity of sand in various places particularly in the context of the construction industry.

Image courtesy – Kristel Anbu, my kind sister-in-law

Despite being commonplace and non-charismatic, sand provides the material basis for ‘development’. From uses such as glass-making to litter boxes for pets, sand is directly used in several familiar ways. The most astounding of these in terms of volume is the creation of ‘new land’ For e.g. Around 500 million m3 of sand was reclaimed (from the ocean bed) for the Palm Island II (Jebel Ali) and Waterfront projects on the coast of Dubai.. ‘This equates to a row of trucks encircling the Earth about 22 times‘ (Jan De Nul Group, 2009).

Image Courtesy – PRP International

I was amazed to discover the wide breadth of applications that sand has, ranging from the mundane to the miraculous :

  1. Construction mortar, concrete and in making bricks for commercial, residential, industrial, administrative, recreational buildings etc.
  2. Beach nourishment/ replenishment for eroding coastlines and land reclamation- extending coastlines, creation of new islands, port development
  3. Infrastructure such as roads, highway surfaces and walkways, parking lots, airport runways, bridges. Consider this example. In the United States, 85,000 tonnes are required in order to construct one mile of four-lane interstate highway and an average six room house requires 90 tonnes of aggregate (Kondolf et al., 2001)
  4. Glass for window panes, glassware, glazing for pottery, lenses, television tubes, mirrors, fibre glass reinforcement, lamps, stained glass art, lasers, insulators, telescopes, bottles and containers for alcohol, soft drinks, and food items like jams, pickles etc. (USGS, 2011)
  5. As a source of strategic minerals such as Silica, Garnets, Thorium and ores such as Titanium, Uranium, Zirconium, Ilmenite used in applications too numerous to list here. Two examples a) Titanium is used in production of ‘lightweight alloys, aircraft components (jet engines, aircraft frames), automotive components, joint replacement (hips ball and sockets), paints, watches, chemical processing equipment, marine equipment (rigging and other parts exposed to sea water), pulp and paper processing equipment, pipes, jewellery’ b) Zirconium is used in ‘Ceramics, refractories, foundry sands, glass, chemical piping in corrosive environments, nuclear power reactors, hardening agent in alloys, heat exchangers, photographic flashbulbs, surgical instruments’ (IIED and WBCSD, 2002). Heavy Minerals such as Rutile, Sillimanite and Monazite that find use in in the paint industry, welding electrodes, ceramics, foundry and also various applications like plastics, sun screen, food colouring and biomedical applications (Corpwatch, 2007)
  6. Industrial uses in metal foundries, industrial casting, sand blasting, sand paper(NISA, 2011)
  7. Semiconductors in electronics and IT Hardware. Semiconductors ‘serve as the essential component in almost every electronic device we use today, ranging from personal computers to notebooks to cell phones. Not even cars can do without semiconductors and electronics today, because semiconductors control the air conditioning, the injection process, the ignition process, the sunroof, the mirrors and even the steering (check out BMW’s Active Steering)’ (Tom‟s hardware, 2007)
  8. Sandbags for the first line of defense in military operations, railway ballast, fill material, grit on the pavements exposed to snow
  9. Hydraulic fracturing applications (Scienceviews.com, 2003-2010)
  10. Water filtration and purification (USGS, 2011)
  11. Recreational needs such as sand pits in playgrounds, artificial beaches, residential pool filters, horse racing tracks, greyhound tracks, football pitches, tennis courts and golf courses especially the sand traps and ball fields. (NISA, 2011)
  12. Litter boxes and building artificial habitats for animals (The Greensand Trust, 2010)

Interestingly enough, despite the significance of sand to modern life, one notices several glaring contradictions in the way this resource is treated:

Sand is classified as a ‘low value’ resource (IIED and WBCSD, 2002) and also a ‘minor’ mineral resource even in legislation (See MAC, 2007 for info on the Indian context). Mining operations of any sort are known to be disruptive and destructive in most cases, especially when not managed well. Sand in particular, is extracted at gargantuan rates and used in quantities that surpass popular imagination. In terms of sheer volume, aggregates of construction minerals (such as sand and gravel) account for the largest material volumes mined in the world where the global production as estimated in 2000, was estimated to exceed 15 billion tonnes per year (IIED and WBCSD, 2002). Yet, much literature explicitly states that sand mining is not as environmentally destructive as other kinds of mining. For e.g. The United States Geological Survey (2011) (USGS) states ‘Except for temporarily disturbing the immediate area while mining operations are active, sand and gravel mining usually has limited environmental impact.’ Strange. Don’t you think?

Is there evidence that establishes ‘Scarcity’?:

Yes – the scarcity is both real (i.e physical) and perceived. Unfortunately though, much of this literature is nonacademic and therefore may sometimes lack cohesion and power. It would be great to see this topic being taken up for further research and in-depth study that can then inform policy decisions. For now, I present what I found…

There are scores of examples of perceived scarcity of sand in varying coastal geographies across the world (Young and Griffith, 2009). Some other examples include Australia (Ratcliffe, 1997; Stoltz, 2011), Cambodia (Global Witness, 2010), Dubai (Palca, 2008),Ghana (Mensah, 1997), India (Hoering, 2008; Padmalal et al., 2008; Sekhar and Jayadev, 2003; Sreeba and Padmalal, 2011), Namibia (Hartman, 2010), Tanzania (Nyandwi, 2001), United States (Brynes et al., 2000; Brynes et al.,2004; Femmer,2002; Kondolf et al., 2001), Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay (Halweil, 2000), Bosnia (Clancy, 2004). Island states in particular feel the acute tension between „development‟ and the need to protect the coast. Numerous examples can be found in many of the Caribbean Islands such as Peurto Rico, Grenada, Tobago, Montesserat, British Virgin island and others (Cambers, 1997), Jamaica (Farrant et al., 2003), Sri Lanka (Gunaratne and Jayarooriya, n.d.), Indonesia (Kamis, 2011, The Jakarta Post, 2007), Maldives (PTI, 2008, Jacob, 2010).

From the creation of jobs (Young and Griffith, 2009) to the production of many material objects listed earlier, the many positive impacts of sand mining traverse a fine line between convenience and necessity. The negative impacts mentioned in the above literature are briefly elaborated in the table below.

Negative Impacts of Sand Mining Examples
Threat to water security Loss of groundwater storage due to lowering of alluvial water table. For instance „The Lake County (California) Planning Department (1992) estimated that incision from in-stream mining in small river valleys could reduce alluvial aquifer storage from 1 to 16 percent, depending on local geology and aquifer geometry.‟ (Kondolf et al., 2001, p54)As explained above, when the deep ‘sponge’ of sand that acts as a reservoir to charge groundwater wells and aquifers is removed, water is consequently no longer available at shallow depths and wells have to be dug deeper where the quality of water might be different. It also implies a significant rise in water costs and hence makes it accessible only to those who can afford it ( See Hoering, 2008)Mining of sand allows for intrusion of sea water and consequent salinisation of well water (Viswanathan, 2002)
Habitat loss including destruction and fragmentation of fragile, endangered ecosystems Mangroves, Coral Reefs destroyed (Myers, 1999)Sea grass beds (Global Witness, 2010)
Reduced species richness Sea Turtle Population Undermined (The Bajan Reporter,n.d.)Indian Otters endangered (Hussain, n.d.)A critically endangered species of crocodile – Gharial (also called Indian Ghavial), where „an estimated 200 breeding adult gharial left in the wild‟ further threatened. (The Gharial Multi-task force, 2006, p6)
Increased shoreline erosion rates Especially when mined unscientifically (Brynes et al.., 2000)
Threats to critical infrastructure such as bridges, roads, railway tracks and the like The costs of infrastructure damage directly attributable to gravel mining In the San Benito River, California, from 1952 to 1995 was estimated to be about $11 million, equivalent to about $3/ton of gravel produced (Harvey and Smith (1998) as cited in Kondolf et al., 2001)
Decreased protection from sea water , especially during ocean disasters Decreased protection from erosion by seawater for beachfronts after sand extraction (Myers, 1999)
Threat to construction industry of all kinds $1 Billion hotel development in Jamaica stalled because 500 truckloads of sand stolen from Coral Springs Beach, Jamaica (Young and Griffith, 2009)
Loss of livelihoods Tourism affected (Young and Griffith, 2009);Occupations such as agriculture, fishing Coir Weaving severely impacted (Viswanathan, 2002)
Changes in land use patterns Destruction of developable land for use in residential construction (which in-turn increases the pressure of urbanization on fertile lands) (Myers,1999)
Increased public health costs From unsafe mining practices (that could cause respiratory diseases like silicosis) (Myers & Muhajir I997)Damage to agricultural lands leaves pits that provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes and thus spread vector borne diseases such as Malaria (Mensah, 1997)
Several social issues Use of child labour and land ownership conflicts in Ghana (Mensah,1997)
Governance Issues Establishment of illegal activities and a mafia around sand mining (Gunaratne and Jayarooriya, n.d.)In India, a sand mine auction ban cost the Maharashtra govt Rs.800 crore (i.e Rs. 8,000.000,000) (Khapre, 2011)

In the next post, I will examine one particular case-study that was part of my research on the topic. For now though, in conclusion to this post, all I have to say is that the current milieu around sand mining / extraction is polychromatic and fiercely contested and definitely not as ‘unproblematic’ as some sources would have us believe.


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