After water, sand is the raw material that the world consumes in the greatest quantity. It is no exaggeration to say that fine sand and coarser materials – the medium-to-coarse-grained pebbles, gravel and rock fragments used in construction – are the building blocks of the modern world.
When bound with cement, sand becomes concrete; when mixed with bitumen, it becomes asphalt; and when heated, it becomes glass. Without sand, we would have no highways, high-rises or high-speed trains. Yet sand – which is used here as shorthand for sand, gravel and crushed rock together – is a resource that is both abundant and finite.
In global terms, it is abundant, especially when compared with many other raw materials, albeit often not available close to where it is needed. It is finite in that the rate at which we are using it far exceeds the natural rate at which it is being replenished by the weathering of rocks by wind and water.
Industrialization, population growth and urbanization have fuelled explosive growth in the demand for sand. Precise data on sand extraction are hard to come by and the lack of data compounds the challenge of managing the resource sustainably.
However, the UN estimates that overall extraction could be in the region of 40 billion tonnes per year, driven primarily by construction sector demand. That equates to 18 kilograms of sand each day for every person on the planet and signals how strategically important these resources are for future sustainable development. Post-COVID-19 recovery investment in infrastructure, digital technologies, tourism and other economic activities are dependent on sand resources.
Current efforts to improve the management of sand resources at local, national and global levels are uneven. This is partly due to unique geological features and geography, but also differences in local manifestations of the ‘sand challenge’, national and regional demand for sand resources, as well as capacities to enforce or implement best practice assessment procedures, extractive practices, environmental management and restoration requirements.
We must put stronger conditions in place for a rapid, just and scaled transition to sustainable sand management. But where to focus our efforts for the greatest positive impact?
Pascal Peduzzi, Director, UNEP GRID
Kiran Pereira, Founder and Chief Storyteller, Sand Stories
Sam Lavender, Managing Director, Pixalytics
Louise Gallagher, Environmental Governance Lead, Global Sand Observatory Initiative
Moderator: Oli Brown, Associate Fellow, Chatham House