In today's Finshots we talk about sand, sand extraction and why most people think this whole thing is unsustainable.


The Story

Nobody thinks much of sand. And yet, it’s so fundamental to our cause. In fact, there’s only one other thing we use more than sand — Water. And much like water, we are having problems with sand. We might actually be running out of it. As the United Nations put it, it’s “one of the greatest sustainability challenges of the 21st century”. So it’s imperative we ask — What’s happening with sand and why is this abundant resource now considered so dear?

Well before we get there, maybe it makes sense to spend some time figuring out what sand really is?

More often than not, sand is just decomposed rocks. Rocks go all sorts of places. Sometimes they travel through rivers and streams, breaking up into tiny pieces and getting battered in oceans. Eventually, they break up so much that you just have a fine deposit of quartz (silica) and feldspar (another mineral). This is what most people think of when they think “sand.” However, it’s not the only kind of sand available. You could also have black sand, white sand, sand made out of poop and some other exotic variants. Bottom line — Sand can be many things to many people. And most people believe that we have an infinite supply of this precious resource.

Which is why it’s so hard to reconcile with the fact that we are running out of sand simultaneously. And it’s not like sand is gold or oil. You can’t put a dollar value on it immediately. But it is still finite and at the current rate of consumption, it’s quite possible that we might not be able to replenish it at the same pace.

The biggest reason — Urbanization. Urban jungles are built on concrete. Concrete whipped up using sand. And as more people move from rural hinterlands to urban centres, we will need more sand. To offer some context, we have some 4.2 billion people living in urban areas today. That’s roughly four times the amount of people who lived in similar areas back in 1950. The UN thinks we could add another 2.5 billion people by 2050. And that means we will need a whole lot of sand. Also, it’s not just the buildings. We use sand on asphalt. We use sand in glasses. We use it in silicon chips. We use it pretty much everywhere.

But despite this overreliance on the commodity, we still don’t have an accurate figure on how much we extract each year. It’s almost as if we are taking things for granted. The UN believes we are using anywhere between 40-50 billion metric tonnes of ‘aggregates’ each year. It's a broad term used to describe sand and gravel. And if there's any truth to this statement, we have to hope that nature can replace several billion tonnes of sand each year, or else risk running out of sand altogether.

And at this point, you’re probably thinking — What about the deserts? Aren’t those vast swathes of land covered in sand? Well, they are. But you can’t use them. They’re the wrong shape. They are too smooth, too round and they don’t lock in and bind together easily. So you can’t use them in asphalt and concrete. The sand we need ought to be angular. It has to have variety in size. You find these along the seabed, coastlines, quarries and river banks— usually protected areas.

Which is why sand mafia is so rampant. People need access to the right kind of sand. And when they don’t find it in abundance, they go about picking it from places they shouldn’t. It’s a travesty.

So what do you do about this?

Well, the obvious solution is to stop using as much sand. Use wood, straw and plastic instead. There are already new developments happening on this front. So that is exciting. But more importantly, we need more data on sand extraction as an enterprise. Who is taking what? And how do we make sure we don’t extract sand from places that could impact the ecology. It’s this kind of information that could potentially help us device better policy prescription. Until then, let’s just hope that we don’t actually run out of sand…

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