Humans' reckless use of sand could soon be reaching a crisis point, warns a new report from the United Nations.
Sand is the world's most-exploited resource after water, playing a vital role in both construction and the natural environment. Unlike water, however, sand isn't recognized as a strategic resource.
The new report argues that our relationship with sand needs to change urgently or else humanity and the natural world could face some real difficulties.
“Our sand resources are not infinite, and we need to use them wisely,” said Pascal Peduzzi, Director of GRID-Geneva at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and report programme coordinator. “To achieve sustainable development, we need to drastically change the way we produce, build and consume products, infrastructures and service.”
Sand is the key ingredient in the concrete, asphalt, and glass that make up our infrastructure. As per the report, around 50 billion tonnes of sand and gravel are used each year, enough to build a 27 meter (88 foot) wide and 27 meter (88 foot) high wall around planet Earth. This heavy use significantly outpaces the rate it is naturally replenished in some regions, meaning the supply of sand could soon be facing trouble.
With the next few decades set to see more population growth and further urbanization, these problems are likely to become even more strained.
"Sand is increasingly vital for building the very foundations of our societies: our homes, the schools for our children, the dams and photovoltaic panels to produce renewable energy. Sand is also essential for building the roads, bridges, hospitals, and infrastructure that are key to human development. Sand is thus the unrecognised hero of our development," Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, director of the Economy Division at UNEP said in the report's foreword.
"We now find ourselves in the position where the needs and expectations of our societies cannot be met without improved governance of sand resources," she continued.
On top of supply issues, the extraction of sand also leads to erosion, salination of aquifers, and loss of protection against storm surges, causing growing problems to a host of coastal or marine ecosystems.
To avoid a crisis, the report argues that sand needs to be recognized as a strategic resource, both as a material for construction and for its multiple roles in the natural world, and closely regulated by new institutional and legal structures. It also recommends banning sand extraction from beaches. Lastly, it argues that people should be incentivized to use alternatives to sand, such as crushed rock, recycled construction, demolition material, and “ore-sand.”
“If we can get a grip on how to manage the most extracted solid material in the world, we can avert a crisis and move toward a circular economy,” added Peduzzi.