Policies and People | Why you should worry about sand mining
From glass to urban infrastructure, from silicon chips to food and pharmaceutical products, sand has been used in mind-numbing volumes. It is the second most resource worldwide, and is being used faster than it can be naturally replenished.
Each day brings new episodes of rampant ecological destruction across India.
On Thursday, Hindustan Times reported that the National Board for Wildlife, the apex body in India for all wildlife-related matters, has allowed sand mining in a portion of the National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary (NCWS) in Madhya Pradesh's Morena district. While the quantum of the area being notified is around 0.5% of the total size of NCWS, environmentalists say that the decision will regularise illegal sand mining within the sanctuary and provide an incentive for more illegal mining elsewhere.
Illegal sand mining is common across India. In addition to the loss of this precious, non-renewable natural resource, it is also responsible for the killing of people who oppose or expose such episodes. The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a non-profit organisation, studied English newspaper reports on accident cases and violence due to sand mining between December 2020 to March 2022. SANDRP found at least 418 people have lost their lives and 438 injured due to sand mining-related reasons during this period.
Sand is a precious resource
Unfortunately, most people don't accord importance to sand and mining of the resource. This is understandable because sand is "cheap" and "abundant".
There is also a lack of information on the kind of crucial ecosystem services sand provides. Even though this is the largest mining industry in the world, it remains largely unregulated and unknown.
I was also unaware of the importance of sand in our lives till I read Kiran Pereira's Sand Stories, and started taking notice of the sand mining-related incidents.
Pereira has a Master's degree in Geography (Environment & Development) from King's College, London, and has done her PhD in sand mining. Today, she is the founder and chief storyteller at SandStories.org.
Her gripping book turns the story of sand into an exciting subject.
In her first chapter, Pereira talks about the diverse uses of sand (from pyramids to the glass shield on your phone) and how all sand is not equal. For example, sand crafted by water is much more in demand than sand crafted by wind (deserts).
"As our hunger for sand increases, we are developing extreme ways to get to it; while the climate crisis is exposing newer deposits of sand as glaciers melt. But fundamentally, we are focussed on a linear model of taking, making, and disposing," writes Pereira in the introductory chapter.
Pereira says that humans have perfected the art of finding new applications for sand. From glass to urban infrastructure, from silicon chips to food and pharmaceutical products, and has been used in mind-numbing volumes.
In summary, sand has become a victim of its versatility.
The UNEP report
If Pereira's book is a narrative on sand, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)'s 2022 report must be read for the data it provides and the recommendations on tackling the overuse of sand.
This report begins with one such number: 50 billion tonnes: Enough to build a wall 27 metres wide and 27 metres high around planet Earth. This is the volume of sand and gravel used each year, making it the second most used resource worldwide after water.
Extracting sand, the report says, where it plays an active role, such as rivers, and coastal or marine ecosystems, can lead to erosion, salination of aquifers, loss of protection against storm surges and impacts on biodiversity, which pose a threat to livelihoods through, among other things, water supply, food production, fisheries, or to the tourism industry.
The resource, the report says, will be crucial to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and tackling the triple planetary crisis of climate, pollution, and biodiversity loss.
However, it is being used faster than it can be naturally replenished, so its responsible management is crucial.
"To achieve sustainable development, we need to drastically change the way we produce, build and consume products, infrastructures and services. Our sand resources are not infinite, and we need to use them wisely. If we can get a grip on how to manage the most extracted solid material in the world, we can avert a crisis and move toward a circular economy," said Pascal Peduzzi, director of GRID-Geneva at UNEP and programme coordinator for this report.
A strategic resource
According to the report's authors, sand must be recognised as a strategic resource, not only as a material for construction but also for its multiple roles in the environment. They stress that governments, industries, and consumers should price sand in a way that recognises its true social and environmental value. For example, keeping sand on coasts may be the most cost-effective strategy for adapting to the climate crisis because it protects against storm surges and impacts from sea level rise — such services should be factored into its value.
Sand Stories and the UNEP report have been eye-openers for me. They explain why illegal sand mining, rampant across India and the world, continues unabated and why we should be worried about its unsustainable use.
The views expressed are personal