Unregulated sand mining has been documented in 70 countries and linked with several associated conflicts.
If they had to guess what the world’s most mined materials are, most people would likely fail to hit on the right answer: sand, gravel and crushed stone.
These substances are essential for a variety of industries that underpin modern life from infrastructure to communication technologies. Their use for cement alone has increased by a whopping 438% over the past 20 years in China and by 60% in the rest of the world.
However, they are an increasingly scarce resource because as much as 50 billion tons of these materials is extracted worldwide each year in countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
The massive amounts of sand and gravel constantly removed from the environment means that grave damage is often inflicted on local ecosystems, especially in lower- and middle-income nations, according to an international team of scientists.
“The impact that sand and gravel mining have on the environment, conflicts with goals linked to the natural dynamics of ecosystems,” explains Mette Bendixen, an assistant professor in the department of Geography at McGill University in Canada who was a lead author of a study published in the journal One Earth.
“Furthermore, pollution, health-related issues and the informal nature of many mining activities creates societal inequalities negatively affecting small scale miners and their families,” Bendixen adds.
Unsustainable exploitation, poor planning and unfair trade trade practices have led to a situation where vast quantities of sand are extracted from riverbeds and beaches in many nations “with far-reaching impacts on local ecology, infrastructure, national economies, and the livelihoods of the 3 billion people who live along the worlds’ river corridors,” the experts note.
“Unregulated sand mining has been documented in 70 countries across the globe, with associated conflicts related to ecological destruction, livelihood disruption and labour rights violations,” they warn. “Battles over sand have reportedly killed hundreds in recent years, including local citizens, police officers and government officials.”
In fact, nearly half of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are compromised because of the large-scale exploitation of these natural resources, which could help drive economic development more equitably in poorer nations if their extraction was managed better. In places such as India, for example, the mining of sand has been linked with local conflicts over access to water and water pollution.
At the same time, the extraction of sand, gravel and crushed stone provides jobs for millions of people and supplies materials for the renewable energy sector as well as roads and other infrastructure. Many of those working in the industry are small-scale artisanal miners in some of the world’s poorest communites.
“Sand resources, when managed appropriately, can create jobs, develop skills usable in other sectors of the economy and spur innovation and investment, whilst continuing to underpin the infrastructure upon which modern society is founded,” observes Lars L. Iversen, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate research who was a lead author in the study.
The solution lies not in banning all mining activities, Iversen argues, but in “finding the balance between the pros and cons of sand and gravel extraction [which] is becoming one of the great resource challenges of our century.”
Bendixen concurs. “We need to build effective management plans and policies for sand resources that support the global sustainable development goals,” the scientist says.
“In order to do so a more complete understanding of the impact of sand and gravel mining is required. This need is especially acute for many countries in low- and middle- income regions that currently possess no overview of the extent of local mining activities, or how such activities are impacting ecosystems and local communities,” she elucidates.