When we think of sand, we imagine the beach or desert, or sand dunes around us with an endless supply. But what some might not know, is that sand is a resource which is transmuted into something else, whether it is found in cosmetics, computer microchips or a skyscraper. And according to scientists, sand is becoming scarcer.
Sand is the world’s second most extracted resource, and is also the most extracted solid material on the planet.
According to science.org, approximately 50 billion metric tonnes of sand is consumed each year; this ongoing demand means the resource is steadily becoming scarcer. “As a key component of cement, asphalt, and glass, sand is integral to every aspect of our lives. It is in our phones, our schools, our hospitals, and our roads,” the academic journal states.
The journal also makes reference to a United Nations (UN) report that investigates the rising demand for sand. According to the UN, there is no universal protocol for the consumption and use of sand. This means that across the world, each country has unique guidelines that dictate its acceptable and responsible consumption. This, however, presents a pitfall as this means that the extraction and use of sand is largely unregulated.
Activities such as damming and extraction have an impact on sediment delivery, reducing it, and this leads to the accelerated erosion of river deltas and beaches. Accelerated erosion also makes some areas more susceptible to flooding, and this could impact agricultural land located close to flowing sources of water.
The rising demand of sand in South Africa
While most of the research surrounding the impact of a sand shortage is centred around sustainability practice and not food systems, the two worlds have already collided in South Africa. In May, Food For Mzansi reported that illegal sand miners in the Limpopo province clashed with farmers.
According to Agri SA, the unregulated sand mining in the province poses a threat to food production and the adequate management of water resources, which in turn, has an impact on food systems as the mining is taking place at the Sand River basin. This is a tributary of the Limpopo River.
“Unregulated sand mines along the Sand River have devastating consequences for farming in the area and the livelihoods these farms support, due to the harmful effects of such activities on the river environment and competition for water,” Janse Rabie, environmental lawyer and head of Agri SA’s natural resources centre of excellence law and policy executive, said at the time.
Currently, the Njele River in Limpopo is also the subject of study as it is deeply impacted by illegal sand mining. According to Tendayi Gondo, lecturer in urban risk management at the University of Venda, the rapid removal of sand can result in a reduction of groundwater recharging and this can, in turn, impact irrigation wells for farms.
“Water quality can be compromised by oil spills and leakages from excavation machinery and transportation vehicles,” he says to Food For Mzansi. “Certain magnitudes of the extraction may result also in the lowering of the water table and subsequently water security issues. In addition to the size of the river, the shape of the river segment in which mining is done is also crucial in determining the magnitude of impact.”
Gondo is studying the river because it is accessed by a number of ecosystems, animals, and is used for a number of human activities.
“The river meanders in a north-eastward direction across a wide plain rich in biodiversity, including numerous large mammals such as giraffes, white rhinos and blue wildebeests,” he says.
“In addition to sand mining, other dominant human activities around the river include cultivation (mostly on the floodplains) and livestock farming. In the recent past, communities along the river have been characterised by a surge in residential and commercial construction activities, which have seen a soaring demand for sand.”
Gondo believes that sand mining and extraction need to be properly regulated through the setting up of policy frameworks. “Decisions concerning where to mine as well as how much and how often to extract need to be determined by policy or specific guidelines,” he says. “We (Gondo and his research team) recommend development of specific policies or guidelines targeted at influencing several variables associated with sand mining at least at the operational level.”
Will we run out of this precious resource?
Although it may be found in practically all nations, sand with an uneven shape is the kind that is most coveted. Although this type of sand is only found in specific places, such as the bottom of rivers and streams, it allows products to be stronger than those made with smooth and symmetrical grains of sand.
“In countries with high demand for sand and poor regulations, once high-quality deposits become exhausted or inaccessible due to urban growth, nature protection, or farming, sand extraction shifts to low-quality materials with organic matter or salt that, when used for the wrong applications, increase the probability of construction failure and building collapse. Construction failures have been linked to poor sand quality in Haiti following the earthquake, Nigeria, Morocco, Thailand, South Africa, and Italy,” says Eric Lambin, geographer and environmental scientist from Stanford University, located in the US.
Experts say it’s important to note that it’s unlikely we’ll deplete sand on a global scale. What we do observe are regional sand scarcities – with both physical scarcities ensuing when demand exceeds physical availability, and economic scarcity resulting from loss of access to sand deposits due to competing land uses or local opposition to mining due to its environmental impacts.
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