The Urbane Ecologist

“Sand Wars”


Denis Delestrac had come home to Barcelona, having wrapped up a documentary. On a Sunday afternoon, he decided to enjoy the weather and recharge his batteries by taking a long walk on the beach close to his home, where he had strolled many times before.

The beach had shrunk since he last saw it. It had gone from being a wide, expansive beach to being about 10 feet wide. Shocked by the sudden difference, he realized that he had no way to answer very basic questions: How did the sand get to the beach? What is sand? How does a coastline disappear?

So he went home and Googled “sand”. As often happens with Googlings, one thing led to another and he came across articles about “sand wars” and “sand mafias”. He was stunned by how little he knew about sand, and he became fascinated by it. He began learning more by reading Sand: The Never-Ending Story by Michael Welland and many other books and articles.

One day he got a call from a producer who had seen the documentary he had recently finished wrapping up. The producer said, “I saw your last film and I really want to work with you on whatever you decide to do next.” And Delestrac said, “I want to work on sand.”


“Sand?! What is there to say about sand?”

It was a chorus that Delestrac was to hear many times over the course of making “Sand Wars“, but its story was so compelling that funding for a documentary was assured and many people became interested in seeing it come to fruition. I saw the documentary at DC’s Environmental Film Festival, where Delastrac and Welland were present for a Q and A afterwards. My eyes opened to a whole new environmental issue and I have been ranting about sand to everyone who will listen. Here, I’m summarizing what I learned.*

Despite how little thought we give to sand, it is the “foundation of modern development” and as crucial to our civilization as air and water. It finds its way into almost every product we can think of and comprises almost every single building and paved road on the planet. Sand, however, is also a worldwide problem that affects all countries and all continents. The demand for sand is so large that coastlines are disappearing. Its story is also dramatic and tantalizing—understanding the current state of sand almost immediately brings us into contact with “sand mafias”, multinational organizations that send ship fleets worth millions of dollars to prowl the world’s oceans, inequality, and refugees. Mind blown yet?

Sand is in everything from microchips, wine, glass, paper, plastics, and paint. A major source of the consumption, however, is construction, where sand is a dominant building material. According to “Sand Wars”, this is the amount of sand needed for the following building projects:

  • House: 200 tons
  • Hospital: 3,000 tons
  • 1 km Highway: 30,000 tons
  • Nuclear Plant: 12,000,000 tons

Annual consumption of sand adds up to 15,000,000,000 (15 billion) tons. After air and water, it is our most used commodity. And in our overwhelming demand for sand lies our problem. As is the case with many of our other natural resources, we have exhausted easily accessible supplies and search for it in expensive, investment-heavy ways that have deeply felt consequences that are difficult to mitigate. Most sand we now use comes from beneath the ocean and is obtained with dredgers. A single dredger can displace 4,000—400,000 square meters of sand. Given the very high cost of these dredgers, companies can only begin to make money when they have a fleet—and this in turn means that the sand that is taken from the world’s oceans is in the hands of a few dredging companies.

Dubai is a fascinating case study in the role of sand in development, and illustrates the broader problem—and incredible irony—inherent in many Middle Eastern cities’ rapid urbanization and consequent dependence on imported sand. Dubai’s rapid development into a heavily constructed metropolis with the world’s tallest building makes in an excellent example of a global trend. A key reason for this sand consumption has been their construction of artificial islands, such as the famous “Palm”, which used 150,000,000 (150 million) tons of sand. A newer project, “The World”—300 artificial islands intended to shape into a map of the world—have used three times as much sand as the Palm. However, due to the financial crisis, the project has been abandoned and there are many islands sitting empty near Dubai.

Middle East = sand and camels in many people’s minds. You would think that cities in the Middle East have no shortage of sand with which to build all their roads and buildings and artificial islands. Unlike the sand that comes from the ocean, which is angular and rough and packs together well, desert sand has been rounded out from being blown around for thousands of years. Being round and smooth means it doesn’t pack together well. Thus development in these countries identified with sand has caused ocean sand to be dredged and imported into the Middle East. About 3,500 companies import sand from Australia to the Gulf. The import of sand is worth $70 billion in international trade a year.

Islands in Indonesia have borne many of the consequences of sand dredging. When dredging occurs near coastlines, it damages them irreparably. The missing sand from below the ocean floor collapses, leading to land above the water sinking. This is particularly terrifying for island communities. “Islands exist by a natural conspiracy,” says Welland. Waves, wind, currents, gravity, and other factors have to align in a particular set of conditions to allow the formation of an island. Thus, once the sand is dredged up below an island and its coastline begins to collapse, there is no way to fix the problem. And once a coastline collapses, boundaries change—making sand a geopolitical issue. Twenty-five islands have disappeared from Indonesia. A lot of the sand that has been dredged below them and has contributed to their demise goes to Singapore. Singapore’s land mass has increased 40% in the past 20 years. 130 square kilometers along Singapore’s shores has already been converted from water to land, and by 2030, another 100 square kilometers will also have done so. Much of the sand that is used in this development is dredged illegally, and contributes to worldwide sand trafficking operations. The Singaporean government is the largest customer of illegal sand traders.

In the Maldives, years of divers heading underwater to fill bags of sand that then get sold have resulted in the severe destruction of coastlines that has prevented islands from being able to resist sea level rise. As a consequence, several islands have had to be evacuated due to their having become uninhabitable. These refugees abandon the islands for neighboring islands and create a need for housing. You can probably guess what this means at this point—these people, who are fleeing destruction caused by the need for sand, contribute to nearby construction booms, and consequently generate an increasing demand for sand. And this sand comes from other islands.

Mumbai also has sand crime to contend with—sand smugglers are the most powerful criminal organization in India. And in Mumbai, construction must keep up with rural to urban migration and consequent increases in sand consumption. In India, construction firms have tacit agreements with the sand mafia, who are also connected to the government, administrative bodies, and the police. There are 8,000 dredging sites on the Indian subcontinent.

Tangiers, Morocco has experienced an influx of people looking for a home on the beach. This has led to a quick rise in construction. The structures made from sand in Tangiers are made from 40-45% stolen sand pillaged from Tangiers’ beaches. Ironically, the very people who flocked to Tangiers to see and live in the picturesque beach vistas and look at and play with the sand are being sheltered in homes that contribute to the transformation of beaches into “lunar landscapes”. What is scary, too, is the fact that much of these buildings are mixed with seawater. Sand and saltwater make a corrosive, unstable mixture that does not make for long-lasting buildings.Tangiers is far from alone—all beaches on the planet are shrinking at an accelerating rate, due largely in part to sand dredging.

In Florida, a state heavily dependent on tourists who come to admire and enjoy its beaches, nine out of ten beaches are in the process of disappearing. In some areas, up to half the GDP depends on beaches. Some cities invest astronomical sums in “beach replacement therapy” which is, in essence, dredging up sand from the bottom of the ocean and then spitting it out on a beach. This is hardly a solution—like the sand it replaces, replacement sand is washed away. One $17.5 million dollar beach replacement project was washed away in a year. Coastal engineering firms profit from this sand problem, too—frequently, they project longer durabilities for these projects than they actually last. Sand barriers which are built against extreme storms are ramped-up versions of these beach replacement therapies and also fail and cost a lot of money. Further, altering the coastline in one area by filling it with sand inevitably results in the disappearing coastline of another.

This huge problem with sand is not purely due to the incredible demand that exists for this material. The construction industry profits from making buildings regardless of whether they are filled or not. Globally, many buildings are being built that are unaffordable to many people but are being held vacant, for investment. In Mumbai, 50% of the houses that are build stay vacant for investment. Consider, too, the huge Chinese cities that have been built, only to remain ghost towns—although their construction industry flourishes. In Spain, where a housing crisis has been so severe it has made global headlines, 30% of the homes built since 1996 have remained empty. Whole airports have been built that have never had a plane fly through them. And although there are so many vacant houses in the world, their prices prevent many from being able to afford them. A third of the global population live in slums. Governments profit from this situation. In fact, the leading consumer of sand is the state. However, there is no global policy, and very few national policies, that even come close to addressing the many problems inherent in our poor management of sand. Frighteningly, it will likely take some time before sand is addressed. Humans have historically waited for problems to get far worse before they get debated or get better. As an example, water issues have become so bad that policy exists to address them; there is some debate on soil issues, which will hopefully resolve itself into good policies; but on sand, there isn’t even a debate yet.

There are some piecemeal efforts to address the many problems derived from our consumption of sand, but they are piecemeal and frequently hampered by lobbying from the industry. Some of the solutions include making houses from other materials, such as corn bales (or hemp, which was not discussed in this documentary); and glass or building recycling to replace sand. One encouraging example has been Denmark, which placed a tax on natural sand and then used the funds to subsidize sand recycling. They now use 90% recycled sand (i.e. glass).

You can find more information on “Sand Wars” here (available in a variety of languages), or you can watch Delastrac’s TED talk on the same topic.  It will be aired on PBS on April 2–don’t miss it!

*The information presented here was written based on my notes from the documentary “Sand Wars” and the Q&A with Welland and Delastrac. I have tried to ensure that my notes were correct and that I did not present any erroneous facts or figures–but I felt it was so important and such an interesting issue that the potential of getting one or two facts wrong was worth any change in perspective I offered my readers. So please forgive any errors–but make sure to leave a comment and I’ll correct them–and read up on sand and watch the documentary for yourself!


Update 10 April 2015 — Just found the New York Times just published “Piling Sand in a Disputed Sea, China Literally Gains Ground” from the 8th of April (David E. Sanger and Rick Gladstone). Chinese vessels have been dredging white sand and pumping into Mischief Reef (partly submerged coral) in order to turn it into an island. They’ve doing this to literally gain ground in a dispute over the ownership of the Spratly Islands, claimed by the Philippines and several other countries.


11 thoughts on ““Sand Wars”

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