Sand and gravel are now the world’s most extracted materials – surpassing fossil fuels – but overexploitation and shortages are fuelling violent conflict and leading to worrisome environmental, economic and health impacts, according to researchers writing in journal Science.

The past century has seen a 23-fold increase in the volume of natural resources used for buildings and transport infrastructure, and sand and gravel has accounted for the vast majority of these materials (79 per cent in 2010). In 2010, 11 billion tonnes were mined, with the Asia-Pacific region having the highest extraction rates.

But because sand is typically treated as a common-pool resource (as it is costly to regulate access), it has led to a “tragedy of the commons”-type situation where it is being “selfishly” extracted without considering long-term consequences – leading to degradation and overexploitation.

The researchers – Aurora Torres, Jodi Brandt, Kristen Lear and Jianguo Liu – said rapid urbanisation was the main driver of increasing sand use as it is a key ingredient in building materials like concrete, asphalt and glass.

“Urban development is thus putting more and more strain on limited sand deposits, causing conflicts around the world.”

Limited sand resources were fuelling illegal trade in the commodity, with the researchers pointing to evidence of organised crime groups in Italy, India and other countries.

“The high profits generated by sand trade often lead to social and political conflicts, including violence, rampant illegal extraction and trade, and political tensions between nations.”

India’s “Sand Mafia”, for example, was noted as one of the most powerful and violent organised crime groups, responsible for the death of hundreds of people.

The environmental implications were sobering, with sand extraction from rivers, beaches and sea floors affecting ecosystem integrity, placing “enormous burdens” on habitats, migratory pathways, ecological communities and food webs.

There were cascading effects on the provision of ecosystem services, water and food security, and human wellbeing and resilience. For example, sand mining exacerbated the effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on Sri Lanka.

And research is beginning to show health impacts.

“Health impacts associated with sand mining remain poorly characterised, but there is evidence that the conditions created by extracting sand can facilitate the spread of infectious diseases.”

With demand for sand resources only set to increase, the researchers said there was “a pressing need” for a global sand governance system.

“Based on what we have already learned, we believe it is time to develop international conventions to regulate sand mining, use and trade,” they wrote in an accompanying Conversation piece.

Low-carbon materials can help

The researchers said efforts were needed to increase efficiency of sand use and trade, which could include recycling policies and avoiding waste along the supply chain.

The Fifth Estate has featured a number of articles promoting the use of waste glass in lieu of sand for concrete and prefabricated panel applications, particularly important as stockpiles of waste glass build up.

However the researchers said “drastic innovation” would be needed because there were no alternatives to sand mining that would meet skyrocketing global demand.

3 replies on “Urbanisation-led sand shortages fuelling violent conflict and environmental disasters”

  1. Are we getting better as a species at dealing with resource extinction (as opposed to just scarcity)? Or is it something we’re just not wired to deal with. I wonder if anybody has tracked our responses to these kind of scares over the last few centuries; rainforest; fish stocks etc – maybe there has been progress. Some colleagues and I made an audio drama which tried to understand if there was anything in the European/Christian background which made it particularly different for us to get our heads round this – it can be heard at

  2. According to there are 7.5bn m3 of sand on the Australian coastline. 11bn tonnes/yr (or 7.15bn m3) the Asia-Pacific demand would strip and devastate every Australian beach in little more than a year. Of course that doesn’t touch on desert sand, which is vastly more plentiful, and widely used overseas for the construction industry, especially in the Middle East and Africa — given that construction accounts for about 75% of the sand used, it makes sense that construction projects be required to only use desert sand for that purpose, (or locally sourced alternatives like earth); Otherwise we will soon be facing dire environmental consequences.

  3. very interesting and quite scary.

    what we need is some leadership in this space. It isn’t going to come just from governments. For example in Western Australia the basic raw materials (BRM) were detailed in the recent Green Growth Plan as being critical to our state’s infrastructure growth. We still have a shortage of fill sand, that has in the past been well over 5 million tonnes per year against the demand for material from civil and construction sectors along. With recommendations ignored on the use of recycled materials and the identification of BRM areas that should be dug up or reserved before encroaching land development covers them over and limits extraction access. However digging holes only leads to the need to fill them. we should avoid generating waste in the first place, I think its better to use recycled materials (fill etc.) as alternatives to BRM. However, I’ve seen resistance from some state government dept. to purchase recycled materials in preference to quarried materials. So our government says one thing and does another to suit its own agenda.

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