Going against the grain: How the world is running out of sand

Melanie Hunt talks to Vince Beiser, a man who literally wrote the book on the planet's growing issue with sand

Sand may seem like it's all around us, but there's not an infinite source of the stuff. Pixabay
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Sand has not only shaped the desert landscapes of the Arabian Gulf over the centuries, but also the culture of the people who roamed it. It is an abundant commodity found all around us. So the message journalist and author Vince Beiser wants to draw attention to in his book, The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How it ­Transformed Civilisation, is a surprising one: the planet's supply is running out.

Sand is an essential component of the construction industry, and is used in the manufacture of concrete and glass, as well as silicon chips and myriad other familiar essentials in the modern age, including our mobile phones. However, desert sand – the kind that is easiest to get hold of – isn't particularly useful, as it's too round, and worn down from centuries of desert winds. It doesn't bind together to create concrete, so we need to look elsewhere to find some that does. Did you know, for example, that much of the sand used in the Burj Khalifa's construction was brought to the UAE from Australia?

It was in rural India, where a little-known murder took place, that Beiser had his epiphany about sand. He'd been sent there to write a piece about Paleram Chauhan, 52, a farmer who had been campaigning for more than a decade to get local authorities to act on illegal sand mining and sand mafias in Raipur Khadar in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Sadly, Chauhan was shot and killed in July 2013 because of his activism, his family claims. "Who would kill anyone over sand, of all things?" asks Beiser. "I then discovered that hundreds had been killed over sand and the reason for that is that it's so incredibly important. It's the most important solid substance in the world, and modern civilisation totally depends on it."

TOPSHOT - A general view of cranes at a construction site with the world's tallest tower Burj Khalifa (background) in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on March 11, 2019. / AFP / KARIM SAHIB

It is estimated that the sand industry is worth more than $130 billion (Dh477.4bn) worldwide. In fact, this year, after water, sand is the natural resource we consume most, more than any other – and that includes oil, trees and gas. Governments are slowly waking up to the need for legislation and yet, as Beiser's story indicates, there are profitable and thriving black markets that often evade the law of their respective countries. "I had never thought about sand before, or had the slightest interest in it beyond how nice it feels on toes on the beach," says Beiser.

The author's journey through sand's history has subsequently taken him to China, Indonesia, Cambodia, the UAE and various parts of the US. He came to learn how the commodity is being used and mined from riverbanks and beds, the marine floor and elsewhere – and how this is impacting communities and the environment worldwide. Illegal sand mining, for example, affects rural farmers, while the extraction of the resource from riverbeds and banks in China has damaged the environment and local water supplies.

We consume way too much, the planet just can't sustain this rate of consumption for seven billion people

In the past few years, Beiser writes in the book, China has consumed more sand than the United States did throughout the 20th century, as it builds sprawling cities to accommodate the workers migrating from rural areas. And it's not just China. "People are moving to cities at the rate of about 65 million people a year," says Beiser. The incredible economic growth of large, populous countries – such as India, Nigeria and Indonesia – over the past 20 to 30 years, has meant the global demand for concrete and glass has exploded. Yet, if you go back about 120 years, there was hardly any concrete used in buildings at all; it was mostly stone, brick and wood. It was the introduction of reinforced concrete in the US in the early 1900s that was the game-changer – and the real catalyst for sand demand. As such, the cost of construction sand in the US has quintupled in the past 30 years – and, of course, this has had an impact on the price of building anything and everything.

Beiser recently returned to the UAE to speak at the Emirates ­Airline Festival of Literature about his perspective-changing book. During a question-and-answer session, a student said that it is young people who will now shoulder the responsibility of finding ways to construct and consume differently. In response, Beiser outlined some fixes that researchers are looking into: such as making concrete with things other than sand, using shredded plastic or bamboo, and developing techniques to make concrete long-lasting so it does not have to be replaced as often.

However, even if you could replace the 50 billion tonnes of sand we use every year with the same quantity of bamboo, surely that would bring about its own set of issues. So what can we realistically do? "We have to just reframe the question," says Beiser. "The question is not: 'What do we do about sand?' The question is: 'What do we do about everything?' We know we are using too much water, catching too many fish, cutting down too many trees, and now we find we are running out of sand. These are not separate issues.

“We consume way too much, the planet just can’t sustain this rate of consumption for seven billion people, let alone [taking into account] that global populations are projected to increase to nine billion over the next couple of decades. We have to find ways to live and build that consume less,” he says.

And so Beiser, a new kind of 21st-century sandman, provides a wake-up call for us all.