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Story Publication logo September 28, 2016

The World Is Starting to Run Out of Sand


Land reclamation works are on-going at this area of Tuas, Singapore's westernmost area where a new massive container port—the world's largest in the next 30 years—is being built. The port authority is using materials dredged from the nearby seabed and earth excavated from tunneling work on a subway line to cut use of sand by about 70 per cent in the building of this pier—which will be one of four eventually. Singapore has been short of sand for its sizeable and continual land reclamation and construction…

Concrete. Glass. Silicon. Our civilization is built on the most important yet most overlooked...

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Fishers face sand dredges in Hamashu village, Lake Poyang.  Photo by Vince Beiser
Fishers face sand dredges in Hamashu village, Lake Poyang. Image by Vince Beiser. China, 2016.

We have become accustomed to the idea that we may, someday, run out of oil. The world's great forests are being stripped away. Underwater aquifers, a vital source of water for millions, are being depleted at an alarming rate.

But very few of us have ever imagined that we are also in danger of running out of sand.

Sand is easy to ignore. It is, after all, one of the most abundant resources on the planet. But when you look at what sand becomes — concrete, glass, and silicon — you begin to realize that we are living in a world made out of sand...a world that would look very different if we were ever to run out.

According to award-winning journalist Vince Beiser, that is exactly what is starting to happen.

Sand is the thing that our cities are made out of... Every concrete building that you see is basically just a huge pile of sand glued together with cement. All the roads that connect all those buildings — also made of sand. All the windows in those buildings are made from sand. The silicon that powers your computers, your cell phones, the chips in your electronics, that's also from sand. So basically, without sand, we have no modern civilization. - Vince Beiser

Because the sand found in deserts often isn't suitable for making concrete, miners strip sand from riverbeds and beaches. Usable sand is a finite resource.

Beiser says rapid urbanization all around the world is causing us to consume concrete at an unprecedented rate. That means sand miners are digging deeper and deeper, disrupting sensitive ecosystems, and in some rare cases, swallowing up entire islands.

The growing demand for sand has also created a deadly black market, sometimes controlled by "sand mafias." In India and Indonesia, sand mafias are believed to have killed hundreds of people in the last few years alone, including police officers and journalists.

Beiser is currently at work on a book about the deadly global war for sand for Penguin Random House.

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