According to reports from CNBC, the BBC, and other organizations, including the United Nations Global Sand Observatory (GSO), which is a program led by the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) GRID Geneva, the global use of sand resources is one of the greatest sustainability issues facing the world. Following water, sand, gravel, and aggregate constitute the second-most exploited resource on earth, and the annual usage has increased in the past few decades to 40 to 50 billion metric tons per year. The trend is expected to continue as key drivers such as urbanization, population growth, and infrastructure development increase. The GSO also notes that a number of international organizations, governments, journalists, civil society groups, research centers, and companies have acknowledged the importance of implementing improved sustainability practices when it comes to sand extraction.

While sand and gravel are available in many different locations across the globe, the sand required for cement is found in riverbeds, banks, and floodplains; lakes; and by the sea. This sand is eroded by water and is able to interlock properly for use in cement. Sand in deserts and elsewhere that’s been eroded by wind isn’t suitable for cement because the sand particles are too round and smooth to lock together. The demand has caused stripped beaches and riverbeds and has led to a black market run by gangs in some countries, leading to violence. According to human rights groups, in some parts of Latin America and Africa, children are forced to work in sand mines.

Sand is not only used for cement. In some countries, the material is imported to perform land reclamation. For example, sand is used in China and Singapore to create more living space along the coast, destroying wetlands and sh habitats and increasing water pollution. In the US and other countries, high-purity silica sand is in demand to create glass, solar panels, and computer chips, as well as to frack oil. This specific type of sand is found in various places, including the state of Wisconsin, where it’s mined on farmlands and in forests.

In response to the growing issues surrounding sand, Louise Gallagher, environmental governance lead at the GSO, says that ve priorities should be focused on in the near term: cooperation on global sand standards; finding cost-effective and viable alternatives to river and marine sand; updating environmental, social, and corporate governance frameworks in the financial sector to include sand; bringing in ground-level voices to the debate on sand governance; and setting regional, national, and global goals on sand use. Another person familiar with the issue, Pascal Peduzzi, a climate scientist with the UNEP, was interviewed by CNBC and said of global sand supply challenges, “It is still very much new. In many of the development policies, there is no one even talking about this issue of sand, where it is coming from, the social impacts or the environmental impacts.” He notes that there’s no planning for where to extract sand or how to monitor extraction and no enforcement of laws because countries are trying to balance their development needs with environmental protection concerns. (5/21)