The world is running out of a crucial raw material


Dozens of trucks dump hundreds of thousands of tons of sand on Miami Beach as part of a US government effort to protect Florida’s tourist destinations from the effects of climate change.


LONDON – An insatiable global appetite for sand, one of the world’s most important but least valued commodities, is unlikely to wane anytime soon. The problem, however, is that this resource is slipping away.

Our entire society is built on sand. After water, it is the most widely consumed raw material in the world and an essential part of our everyday life.

Sand is the main ingredient in the construction of roads, bridges, high-speed trains and even land regeneration projects. Sand, gravel and stone that are crushed together are melted down to make the glass used in every window, computer screen and smartphone. Sand is also used in the manufacture of silicon chips.

However, the world is facing a shortage – and climate researchers say this is one of the greatest sustainability challenges of the 21st century.

“Is it time to panic? Well that certainly won’t help, but it’s time to take a look and change our perception of sand,” said Pascal Peduzzi, climate researcher with the United Nations Environment Program, during a think tank webinar Chatham House.

We never thought we’d run out of sand, but it starts in a few places.

Pascal Peduzzi

Director of GRID-Geneva

Peduzzi, director of UNEP’s Global Resource Information Database in Geneva, Switzerland, described global governance of sand resources as “the elephant in space”.

“We just think that sand is everywhere. We never thought we would run out of sand, but it starts in some places. It’s about anticipating what can happen in the next ten years because if we don’t move forward see if we do not assume that we will have massive problems with the sand supply, but also with the land planning, “he added.

A sand-powered construction boom

It is currently not possible to closely monitor global sand consumption. However, Peduzzi said this could be measured indirectly, pointing to a “very, very good” correlation between the use of sand and cement.

The UN estimates that 4.1 billion tons of cement are produced each year, mostly in China, which accounts for 58% of today’s sand-powered construction boom.

For every ton of cement, 10 tons of sand are required. This means that the world uses around 40 to 50 billion tons of sand annually for construction alone. That’s enough to build a wall 27 meters high and 27 meters wide that wraps around the planet every year.

Sand dunes in the Sahara.

Getty Images

The global rate of sand use, which has tripled in the past two decades due in part to increasing urbanization, far exceeds the natural rate at which sand is replenished by the weathering of rocks by wind and water.

Sand can be found in almost every country on earth, covering deserts and lining coastlines along the world. But that doesn’t mean that all sand is useful. Grains of desert sand, eroded by the wind rather than the water, are too smooth and rounded to be linked together for building purposes.

The coveted sand is more angular and can join together. It is usually extracted from ocean floors, coastlines, quarries and rivers around the world.

“A grain of change”

Louise Gallagher, head of environmental policy at UNEP / GRID-Geneva’s Global Sand Observatory Initiative, said the problems surrounding sand have become a “diffuse” and “complex” problem that needs to be resolved.

For example, she said that banning river sand extraction would inevitably have an impact on the people and communities who rely on the practice to make a living.

China and India top the list of areas where sand extraction is affecting rivers, lakes and coasts, largely due to increasing demand for infrastructure and construction.

UNEP previously warned of thriving “sand mafias” with groups of builders, traders and business people known to operate in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Kenya and Sierra Leone. Activists who work to shed light on their activities are threatened and even killed.

Construction cranes and vehicles cover the A10 motorway between Paris and Bordeaux in sand on November 6, 2019 near Monts, central France.


Sand is “perceived as cheap, available, and infinite, and that’s in part because the environmental and social costs are quite expensive,” Gallagher said Tuesday during the same webinar.

“It seems like we believe that the highest utility value for this material right now is for extracting it from the natural environment rather than for the other types of benefits we get from it, such as coastal climate resilience to leave areas in the system, “she continued.

“We have to think about sorting out the mess of this crazy fragmented image a bit – and it happens. That’s the good news. We’re not ignoring this problem any further, I think. It’s not as invisible as it used to be.”

Gallagher identified five priorities for managing sand resources over the next two years: working together on global standards in all sectors, inexpensive and workable alternatives to river and sea sand, updating the environmental, social and corporate governance framework in the financial sector to include sand , Bring in voices from the ground and set regional, national and global goals for sand use on the right scale.

“Nobody talks about this problem”

“I would say a grain of sand can be a grain of change,” said Kiran Pereira, researcher and founder of

“It’s important to focus on good things that happen. Zurich, for example, builds buildings from 98% recycled concrete. The city of Amsterdam is committed to becoming 100% circular (and) halving its natural resources by 2050 by 2030. That is the way to go, “said Pereira.

The wake-up call to global sand shortages, Peduzzi said, came in 2019 when governments first recognized the environmental crisis and the issue was finally put on the political agenda as a result of a UN resolution.

An excavator and a bulldozer are working on the grounds of the gravel plant and the concrete mixing plant of the Max Bögl group of companies.

Soeren Stache | Image Alliance | Getty Images

Unfortunately, Peduzzi told CNBC that the challenge on the global stage has still not been adequately addressed.

“It’s still very new. In many development policies nobody talks about this issue of sand, where it comes from, the social impact or the environmental impact, so there is a lot to be done,” he continued.

“Still, no big plans, no standard of how it should be extracted, no land planning of where to extract and where not to extract, no monitoring of where it comes from in most places (and) no enforcement of laws because countries in between Think about development needs and environmental protection. “

Looking ahead, industrialization, population growth and urbanization are likely to lead to explosive growth in demand for sand.

“It’s time to wake up,” said Peduzzi.