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Biodiversity & Environment

UNEP Report on Sand Mining

  • 08 May 2019
  • 4 min read

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has released a report, Sand and Sustainability: Finding new solutions for environmental governance of global sand resources, that highlights a problem that the sand has been extracted at rates exceeding natural replenishment rates.

  • Sand and gravel are mined the world over, accounting for the largest volume of solid material extracted globally.
  • Without them, there is no concrete, no asphalt, no glass to build the necessary schools, hospitals and other necessary infrastructure under current construction and industrial production systems and methods.
  • The statistics show that the quantity of cement produced has tripled in two decades. The use of sand and gravels is highly correlated with the cement production.
  • India and China lead in global infrastructure construction. China overseas investment in infrastructure development through the Belt and Road Initiative will drive demand for aggregates (a term for crushed rock, sand and gravel used in construction materials) in approximately 70 countries.
  • Furthermore, domestic demand in India is expected to drive strong future growth in Asia.
  • Accountability and transparency are the major challenges in managing the sand mining.

Ecological Damage

  • While 85% to 90% of global sand demand is met from quarries, and sand and gravel pits, 10% to 15% extracted from rivers and seashores is a severe concern due the environmental and social impacts.
    • Their extraction often results in river and coastal erosion and threats to freshwater and marine fisheries and aquatic ecosystems, instability of river banks leading to increased flooding, and lowering of groundwater levels.
    • The report notes that China and India head the list of critical hotspots for sand extraction impacts in rivers, lakes and coastlines.
  • As per the report, most large rivers of the world have lost between half and 95% of their natural sand and gravel delivery to ocean.
    • The damming of rivers for hydro-electricity production or irrigation is reducing the amount of sediment flowing downstream.
    • This broken replenishment system exacerbates pressures on beaches already threatened by sea level rise and intensity of storm-waves induced by climate change, as well as coastal developments.

Solutions

  • Reducing unnecessary construction including speculative projects or those being done mainly for prestige thereby making more efficient use of aggregates.
  • Investing in infrastructure maintenance and retrofitting rather than demolish and rebuild cycle.
  • Embracing alternative design and construction methods, even avoiding the use of cement and concrete where possible.
  • It is critical to raise awareness that what is seen as cheap and freely available i.e sand, is in fact a limited resource.
  • At the policy level, the way forward, the report suggests, is to strengthen standards and best practices to curb irresponsible extraction and to invest in sand production and consumption measurement, monitoring and planning; and establish dialogue based on transparency and accountability.
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