It may seem like a story from The Onion, but evidently it’s real. According to journalist Vince Beiser, a protégé of the Pulitzer Foundation who’s doing a book on the subject, the global economy faces serious shortages of the modern world’s most common construction material – sand.
by Andy Feeney
It may seem like a story from The Onion, but evidently it’s real. According to journalist Vince Beiser, a protégé of the Pulitzer Foundation who’s doing a book on the subject, the global economy faces serious shortages of the modern world’s most common construction material – sand. And as shortages worsen, Beiser and other observers note, the dredging and mining of sand from fragile environments is causing destruction to communities of farmers and fishermen – as well as endangered species of plants and animals — in many different countries.
The destructive extraction of sand is particularly widespread in many developing economies, the experts indicate. In India in particular, illegal extraction is often done by “sand mafias” who at times kill government officials and green activists who stand in their way.
Although sand has never fascinated politicians and intellectuals the way that, say, gold and diamonds and fossil fuels have, certain grades of it are essential ingredients in construction materials used in building modern cities – notably concrete, asphalt, and glass.
Sand also is what nation-states use in large quantities when constructing artificial islands and reclaiming urban lands from the sea, as China, Singapore and some Gulf States have been doing recently. Along the U.S. Atlantic Coast in states like New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, sand is what coastal resort towns use in replenishing beaches at risk of shrinking or disappearing due to heavy storm activity and gradual sea level rise.
The state of Louisiana, meanwhile, which has been losing extensive coastal areas to the Gulf of Mexico for decades now, has recently approved a long-term coastal defense plan that will make extensive use of sand in creating artificial barrier islands and coastal wetlands to hold back the sea. This suggests that as global climate change worsens, this particular demand for sand could grow dramatically.
Sand even is employed in hydraulic fracking for natural gas in some parts of the United States, and it’s obviously important in the manufacturing of silicon-based computer chips and silicon-based photovoltaic cells. In short, Beiser has stated, in a June 23 New York Times op ed on the subject, “Sand is the essential ingredient that makes modern life possible. And we are starting to run out.”
Beiser and David Roche, an attorney who tracks the impacts of the world’s $70 billion sand extraction industry for the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), discussed the issues at stake in sand mining and dredging on Aug. 8 on the Diane Rehm Show. Joining them were Barry Holliday, head of the industry trade association Dredging Contractors of America; and Geoffrey Wikel, an official with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) who oversees the offshore dredging of sand along the U.S. Continental Shelf, essentially for use in beach replenishment.
What Beiser and the other Diane Rehm Show panelists indicated is that the destructive effects of sand extraction in the United States may be relatively well regulated, at least where the dredging of ocean sands is concerned. However, Wikel of the BOEM warned that Miami Beach and other coastal communities in Florida have used up so much ocean sand that near-offshore supplies of it are getting depleted, so that Florida communities are now thinking of importing sand from other places, such as Bermuda.
The land mining of sand in the Midwest, including in parts of Wisconsin where extensive acreages of farmland have been torn up to provide sand for the hydraulic fracking industry, seems less regulated. And in the San Francisco Bay area,environmentalists are growing concerned about dredging in the Bay to provide sand for the local construction industry. Such dredging is extensive enough to be depleting Bay area beaches, according to Diane Rehm’s guests.
The problem of illegal sand extraction is particularly acute in India, Beiser said on the show: “cities are just exploding, the amount of construction that’s going on there is just absolutely unbelievable, and there’s so much of it, there’s so much of a shortage of sand in some places that it’s created a black market in sand, which is now run by criminal gangs.”
The gangs in the Indian “sand mafia,” Beiser added, resemble criminal gangs in many other places: “they bribe police, they bribe government officials … (and) if you really get in their way, they will kill you. Hundreds of people have been murdered over sand in the last few years in India.”
In his Times op ed article, Beiser also has identified other developing nations where sand extraction – legal and otherwise – is creating social and environmental damage. The list includes Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, among other places.
The sand extraction industry of Cambodia has especially come to the attention of an NGO called Global Witness, which focuses on investigating and exposing human rights abuses and environmental destruction associated with extractive industries around the world.
According to its website, Global Witness’s work “exposes the hidden links between demand for natural resources, corruption, armed conflict and environmental destruction” within the global political and economic system. In a 2010 report on sand mining in Cambodia, the group’s campaigner George Boden concluded that “Cambodia’s sand-dredging industry poses a huge risk to its coastal environment, threatening endangered species, fish stocks and local livelihoods.”
The Cambodian government in 2009 purportedly banned sand dredging in the country, Boden’s report noted. However, the industry a year later was still operating under the protection of two corrupt politicians with close ties to the country’s president, and there was “no evidence that basic environmental safeguards have been applied, with boats reportedly turning up and dredging sand, often in protected areas, with no local consultation.”
According to Global Witness, demand for sand from the thriving city-state of Singapore is largely responsible for the continuation of destructive sand extraction in Cambodia. Singapore has expanded its land area by 22 percent since the 1960s and was the world’s largest importer of sand in 2008, the report notes, and Singapore’s demand for sand has caused “havoc” for the coastlines of several other nations in Southeast Asia.
Yet however much blame attaches to Singapore, Global Witness finds that Cambodia’s government likewise bears much of the responsibility for destructive sand extraction. Illegal sand dredging in the country “points to the increasing stranglehold of Cambodia’s kleptocratic elite on its natural resources,” according to Global Witness. Such dredging is “replicating a pattern of corruption, cronyism, and rights abuses previously found in the forestry sector and extractive industries.”
Whether either the U.S. environmental movement or green activists within DSA want to involve ourselves in the battle against illegal sand dredging is debatable at this point. So far, we’re not doing as well as we should in fighting against U.S. contributions to greenhouse gas emissions that drive global climate change.
However, the work of Beiser, Roche and the activists at Global Witness points to yet another environmental crisis arising not only from global population growth – as Beiser rather suggests in his New York Times piece – but also from the ongoing industrialization of the world economy and the urbanization of the world’s population at the hands of capitalist economic forces, as Marxist geographer David Harvey has written in The Enigma of Capital and as socialist Mike Davis suggests in Planet of Slums. As eco-socialists and other green activists go about fighting for a more sustainable and socially just world economy, we need to keep the sand extraction crisis in mind.
For more information on Beiser’s and Roche’s appearance on the Diane Rehm Show, please click here: https://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2016-08-08/the-global-demand-for-sand .
For more on Roche’s work at ELI on sand extraction, click here: https://www.eli.org/vibrant-environment-blog/sand-mining-biggest-environmental-issue-no-one-talking-about .
For a web page at the Pulitzer Foundation on Beiser’s work, click here: http://pulitzercenter.org/blog/india-california-sand-mining-poses-challenge-environmentalists . You can click here for Beiser’s New York Times op ed: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/23/opinion/the-worlds-disappearing-sand.html .
For the 2010 Global Witness report on illegal sand extraction in Cambodia, click here: https://www.globalwitness.org/en/archive/environment-risk-cambodia-exports-millions-tonnes-sand-singapore-new-global-witness-report/ .
More on Global Witness and its work can be found here: https://www.globalwitness.org/en/about-us/ , and here: https://www.globalwitness.org/en/about-us/meet-our-ceo/ .
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