Science magazine on Peak Sand 2017 and 2018

[ Sand is essential to make concrete, glass, silicon for computer chips, and many other products (longer list in Peak Sand), so no wonder top journal “Science” has had two articles on this topic.

Sand mining also ruins ecosystems, lessens biodiversity, impairs water and food security, makes storm surges and tsunamis more destructive, ruins drinking water with salty water, and salinization of cultivated land reduces and even prevents land from being farmed.

In India, illegally mining sand has become very lucrative and the “Sand Mafia” in India has become one of the most powerful and violent organized crime groups. They’ve killed hundreds of people so far in “sand wars”.  As a consequence of sand mining, death stalks people in other ways; standing-water pools created by extraction have increased the prevalence of malaria and other diseases.

These two articles have been shortened.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Larson, C. 2018. Asia’s hunger for sand takes toll on ecology. Science 359: 964-965.

Across Asia, rampant extraction of sand for construction is eroding coastlines and scouring waterways.

Already, scientists have linked poorly regulated and often illegal sand removal to declines in seagrasses in Indonesia and in species such as the Ganges River dolphin and terrapins in India and Malaysia. In eastern China’s Poyang Lake, dredging boats are sucking up tens of millions of tons of sand a year, altering the hydrology of the country’s largest freshwater lake, a way station for migratory birds.

Used to make concrete and glass, sand is an essential ingredient of nearly every modern highway, airport, dam, windowpane, and solar panel. Although desert sand is plentiful, its wind-tumbled particles are too smooth—and therefore not cohesive enough—for construction material. Instead, builders prize sand from quarries, coastlines, and riverbeds.

Between 1994 and 2012, global cement production—a proxy for concrete use—tripled, from 1.37 billion to 3.7 billion tons, driven largely by Asian construction, according to a 2014 report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Land reclamation projects, too, have a rapacious hunger for sand. Singapore, for example, has expanded its land area by 22% using sand primarily from Malaysia, Cambodia, and Indonesia as fill. All told, UNEP warned, sand mining—on an industrial scale and by individual operators—“greatly exceeds natural renewal rates” and “is increasing exponentially.”

Scientists are now tracing the collateral damage. A paper under review at Science of the Total Environment  explains how sand mining has driven declines of seagrass meadows off of Indonesia. Sediment plumes stirred up by the dredging block sunlight, impeding photosynthesis, his team has found. The meadows nourish several species, including the dugong, which is in decline.

Another sand mining victim is the southern river terrapin, a critically endangered turtle in Southeast Asia.  “Terrapin habitat cannot be easily replaced,” Chen says, because female turtles return each year to lay eggs at the same beaches.

Also under siege, in Bangladesh and India, is the northern river terrapin. “Sand mining is one of the biggest problems and reasons why they are so endangered today,” says Peter Praschag, a biologist at the Conservation Breeding and Research Center for Turtles in Graz, Austria. “When the sand banks are gone, the [terrapin] is gone.” Other creatures directly affected by river sand mining, scientists say, are the gharial—a rare crocodile found in northern India—and the Ganges River dolphin.

Poyang Lake, a key wintering ground on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, hosts dozens of migratory species, including almost all of the 4000 or so surviving Siberian cranes. But sand dredging campaigns in the middle Yangtze Basin have expanded rapidly since the early 2000s, when such activities were banned on sections of the lower Yangtze. “Sand mining has significantly lowered the water level, especially in winter,” says Lai Xijun, an environmental hydrologist at the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology in China. Falling lake levels can curtail the birds’ access to aquatic vegetation. And when lake bottom mud dries and hardens, the birds may not be able to pluck out nutritious tubers.

In grasslands near Poyang, the kind and amount of food the cranes consume “may no longer be enough to fuel egg laying” at the levels the birds managed in the past, says James Burnham, a conservation biologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. His group has documented a worrisome decline in the ratio of juvenile cranes to adults at Poyang between 2010 and 2012.

Torres, A., et al. September 8, 2017. A looming tragedy of the sand commons. Science.

Increasing sand extraction, trade, and consumption pose global sustainability challenges.

As a morning mist rolls in from the Arabian Sea, young men lead a couple of dozen ox-drawn carts onto a beach south of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. Using shovels and buckets, they pile their rickety wooden transports high with sand, which they will sell to cement makers. Altering the shoreline is illegal in India, but enforcement of coastal protection zones is lax.

Between 1900 and 2010, the global volume of natural resources used in buildings and transport infrastructure increased 23-fold. Sand and gravel are the largest portion of these primary material inputs (79% or 28.6 gigatons per year in 2010) and are the most extracted group of materials worldwide, exceeding fossil fuels and biomass. In most regions, sand is a common-pool resource, i.e., a resource that is open to all because access can be limited only at high cost. Because of the difficulty in regulating their consumption, common-pool resources are prone to tragedies of the commons as people may selfishly extract them without considering long-term consequences, eventually leading to overexploitation or degradation. Even when sand mining is regulated, it is often subject to rampant illegal extraction and trade. As a result, sand scarcity is an emerging issue with major sociopolitical, economic, and environmental implications.

Rapid urban expansion is the main driver of increasing sand appropriation, because sand is a key ingredient of concrete, asphalt, glass, and electronics. Urban development is thus putting more and more strain on limited sand deposits, causing conflicts around the world. Further strains on sand deposits arise from escalating transformations in the land-sea interface as a result of burgeoning coastal populations, land scarcity, and rising threats from climate change and coastal erosion. Even hydraulic fracturing is among the plethora of activities that demand the use of increasing amounts of sand. In the following, we identify linkages between sand extraction and other global sustainability challenges.

Environmental Impacts

Sand extraction from rivers, beaches, and seafloors affects ecosystem integrity through erosion, physical disturbance of benthic habitats, and suspended sediments. Thus, extensive mining is likely to place enormous burdens on habitats, migratory pathways, ecological communities, and food webs.

For instance, sand mining degrades corals, seaweeds, and seagrass meadows through direct removal during dredging operations, sedimentation, and reduction in light availability that compromises photosynthesis. As a result, it is a driver of biodiversity loss that threatens species on the verge of extinction—such as the Ganges river dolphin—as well as newly discovered species, such as the São Paulo marsh antwren, found in isolated marshes of southeast Brazil that have been heavily degraded by sand mining. Furthermore, sand transport vessels may carry one of the most aggressive freshwater invaders, the Asian clam, although the role of sand transport in the spread of invasive species remains underexplored.

Cascading Effects

Such environmental impacts have cascading effects on the provisioning of ecosystem services and human well-being. For example, sand mining is a frequent cause of shoreline and river erosion and destabilization, which undermine human resilience to natural hazards such as storm surges and tsunami events, especially as sea level continues to rise. In Sri Lanka, extensive sand mining exacerbated the impacts of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; ironically, sand demand for coastal restoration increased in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Extensive sand extraction also impairs water and food security. Extraction-induced erosion and degradation of riverine and coastal systems may disrupt the productivity of both wild (e.g., fisheries) and cultivated (e.g., mariculture and croplands) food sources. In the Mekong Delta, sand mining is responsible for enhanced salt-wedge intrusion during the dry season, which damages domestic water supply and increases salinization of cultivated land in Southeast Asia’s most important food-producing region. In Sri Lanka, saltwater intrusion due to extensive illegal sand mining has affected drinking water supply and led to severe declines in productivity of crops (e.g., coconut, rubber, and tea).

Health impacts associated with sand mining remain poorly characterized, but there is evidence that the conditions created by extracting sand can facilitate the spread of infectious diseases. New standing-water pools created by extraction activities in rivers and stream beds provide potential breeding sites for malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. Hence, sand mining has been associated with the spread of malaria. For example, Soleimani-Ahmadi et al. have shown that in Iran, the most common larval habitats for anopheline larvae of two malaria vectors (Anopheles dthali and Anopheles stephensi) are sandmining pools. Sand mining has also been associated with increased incidence of an emerging bacterial disease, the Buruli ulcer, in West Africa.

The high profits generated by sand trade often lead to social and political conflicts, including violence, rampant illegal extraction and trade, and political tensions between nations. For example, in India, the “Sand Mafia” is considered one of the most powerful and violent organized crime groups, and hundreds of people have been killed in “sand wars”. To gain land through land-reclamation projects, Singapore relies on sand imports from neighboring countries; the latter lose sand and suffer the consequences of mining, frequently leading to political tensions, accusations of illegal sand extraction, and sand export bans.

All these challenges have important implications for environmental justice. The degradation brought about or reinforced through sand extraction places heavy burdens on local populations, especially on farmers, fishers, and those—typically women—fetching water for households. People from these populations may become environmental refugees, as has already happened in Sri Lanka and the Mekong Delta. Increased vulnerability of eroded areas to flooding and landslides may directly displace populations, as shown by the recent relocation of over 1200 households in Vietnam.

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4 Responses to Science magazine on Peak Sand 2017 and 2018

  1. NJF says:


    Let’s assume oil depletion isn’t the catalyst for collapse. What material scarcity or phenomenon would be second in command so to speak?

    For example, phosphorous, potassium, uranium, sand, etc.? Or do you think climate change could outpace peak oil in terms of destructive effect in the short term? Seems unlikely but plausible.

    I have considered getting a homestead property, deenergize my life (canning vs refrigeration, deelectrification of appliances and more) and shorten my food supply chain, but I’m wondering if roving gangs of local warlords will simply seize my property once collapse occurs due to my lack of advanced combat training and militia networking. What a beautiful world it will be when we run out of oil.

    • energyskeptic says:

      Yep, a lot of peaking minerals, that’s why I have the category Peak Everything. But since oil makes all other resources possible, the peaking of oil production is far and away the most important.
      Yeah, if you’re in the middle of nowhere you’re very vulnerable. If I were to move somewhere it’d be a midwestern farm town or somewhere else surrounded by a lot of food, and have a half acre or so yard to grow as much as I possibly could. But I don’t specialize in survival stuff, and my husband won’t move somewhere safer, so I’m going down with the ship in Oakland, CA whenever it happens…

  2. Ashes Ashes podcast just had a great episode on the importance of sand, the devastation involved in its mining, and its peak: Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach.

  3. Also, since commenting don’t seem to be enabled at your Peak Sand piece, a correction and an addition suggestion for that page:

    The “Has Fracking reached peak sand?” link goes to the same article as the “Sand’s End” link just below. It should instead be

    And you may want to add a more recent update from Houston Chronicle: As pipeline shortage slows Permian output, sand miners take hit. Has updates on new sand mines in the Permian basin making sand from far away less of a bottleneck.