The UN reports, “sand, rarer than one thinks”

sand in sink

I was faced with another coastal conundrum the other week when I caught myself emptying beach sand from my sneakers down the sink. Sand is more than millennium years old, fine, white and highly prized as it shapes my beach, famous for surf, sun and sand, the Gold Coast. Working in coastal management and living by the sea, I know and see the littoral drift of approximately 500,000m3 of sand that changes my coastline. This littoral drift seems to be infinite. Though, unknown to most people, “sand is rarer than one thinks”, as reported in a recent UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service report1.

Did you know sand accounts for the largest volume of solid material extracted globally?

Despite the millions of years it takes for rock to erode to form sand and then build beaches, extraction rates are now exceeding replenishment. Driven by our demand for cement, glass, electronics and aeronautics, and then multiplied by land reclamation and shoreline developments, the depletion of sand resources is exceeding by 40 billion tonnes a year. Based on cement production rates, in 2012, China absorbed the largest volumes spurred by development demand/growth (i.e. exponentially increased by 437.5% in the last 20 years), with the rest of the world’s demand increasing by 59.8%.

Due to the excessive extraction rates, river systems are now becoming depleted, which in turn, turns the resource tide towards marine resources as high processing costs balance market demand. This large-scale extraction of sand around the world increases accumulative impacts on biodiversity, land loss, hydrological function, water supply, infrastructure, climate, and landscape and extreme events. Add population growth… what do we have?

Hope, I hope. So, your summer day’s beach bubble has probably burst. Especially if you thought sand was an infinite, free resource (as commonly assumed in Australia as beaches are owned by the Crown for the people), dependences on coasts for livelihoods, arable land, water resources, etc. exacerbates this sand resourcing issue. As sand is an asset, the report goes on to detail how such accumulative impacts impact coastal economies. To the extreme how sand smugglers drive a black market for sand. Resulting in illegal and unregulated extraction that leads to the destruction of the natural environment that initially attracts social and economic capital.  And further unsustainable sand resourcing. For instance, as The World project in Dubai exhausted all local marine sand resources, Australian sand was used to build the impressive tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, at 828 metres. Or even evaluating environment-economic accounting systems to justify using recycled glass on beaches rather than traditional sand resourcing from a mine or ocean dredging to combat coastal erosion issues – as in Florida, USA.

As you can see our obsession with sand comes at a high cost, environmentally, socially and economically, and needs to be brought to the political agenda. The absence of a global monitoring and regulatory framework perpetuates the lack of political will to address this urgent international situation.

What can you do?

Check out what happens on your local beach for sand management. I am fortunate, as my local council (City of Gold Coast) has brought forward a sand management plan under their Ocean Beaches Strategy to strategically manage local sand resources – now and into the future. And next time you go to empty sand from your shoes, bags, pockets and car, think twice… 1United Nations Environment Programme (2014), Sand, rarer than one thinks, United Nations Environment Programme Global Environmental Alert Service Report.

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