Windblown desert sand grains

Construction conundrum: where did all the sand go?

Image credit: Getty Images

As you head for the beach to enjoy the tail-end of the UK’s record-breaking Mediterranean summer, spare a thought for the plight of the British coast. Then spare another thought for an emerging environmental crisis, as rapid growth in the global construction industry means we’re starting to run out of arguably the most important engineering material – sand.

According to the National Trust, 90 per cent of us think that Britain’s coast is a ‘national treasure’. Yet a recent YouGov study highlights that there has been a 20 per cent decline in visitors to British beaches since 2005. The 9,000 people questioned gave various reasons for the tail-off, including traffic congestion, expense and a preference for cheap overseas holidays. All around Britain, we’re being put off because of a perception that beaches simply aren’t as sandy as they used to be. If we are to believe news reports, the frequency with which Britain’s beaches get washed away is on a steady rise.

Coastal erosion is the natural way of things, exacerbated by increased storm events due to climate change. It’s a simple fact of physical geography that strong currents, high tides and winds have the potential to strip beaches of their sand overnight. This puts pressure on our beaches, both as a natural environment and a recreation resource. Over the centuries we’ve evolved a portfolio of coast management engineering defences to counteract the forces of nature in an attempt to keep sand where we want it. It’s a constant battle. Sometimes we win. And sometimes we monumentally lose.

Andrew Cooper, professor of coastal studies at the University of Ulster and co-author of ‘The Last Beach’, says: “Most natural sand beaches are disappearing, due partly to rising sea levels and increased storm action, but also due to massive erosion caused by the human development to the shore.” The environmental cost of losing natural beaches is that they are simply much better at protecting inland areas than anything we can build. Orrin Pilkey, Cooper’s co-author, says: “Beaches absorb the power of the ocean waves, reducing them to a gentle swash that laps the shoreline. They move sand around to maximise the absorption of wave energy and then recover in the days, months and years to follow.”

These natural forces are nothing compared with the man-made sand crisis the world faces today. It’s the global environmental time-bomb that no-one’s ever heard of, and that is, with the world’s construction industry booming like never before, the demand for sand is going through the roof. We’re heading for a global shortage of the world’s most extracted natural resource and most > < consumed apart from water. This demand comes mainly from the concrete and asphalt industries used to expand the world’s 31 megacities. This will increase, as the UN forecasts that there will be at least another 10 by 2030.

By far the biggest consumer of sand in developing its infrastructure is China, which, according to its own government figures, built 32.3 million houses and 4.5 million kilometres of road between 2011 and 2014. During this heavy construction phase, China used more concrete than the USA did in the whole of the 20th century. But, sand has other industrial uses too, including glass manufacture, electronics, oil extraction and land reclamation. Since the 1960s, Singapore has grown in area by 20 per cent, while the Palm Islands land reclamation project in Dubai used 94 million cubic metres of offshore subsea sand to produce new land.

Case study

On the other hand, too much sand?

During the past decade sand levels on Swansea Bay in South Wales have increased by as much as 1.5m. While this creates an embarrassment of riches in terms of tourism, it has also caused an environmental problem as tonnes of sand are deposited on the main coast road linking Oystermouth to the city during storms. Swansea Council has now collaborated with Natural Resources Wales on a pilot scheme to introduce a sustainable way of managing wind-blown sand.
The £20,000-per-year scheme creates dune defences with the enclosure of areas above the high-tide mark by sand fences. The sand is then stabilised by planting marram grass that, with its long and complex creeping underground rhizome (or stem) systems, binds the dune and stops coastal erosion or sand encroachment onto roads. 
Former Lord Mayor of Swansea and now council cabinet member for environment and transportation David Hopkins says that the problem has been dealt with in an “environmentally friendly and sustainable way”, adding “we are working hard to return as much sand as possible to the beach”.
Jerry Griffiths at Natural Resources Wales said that the project will “create a habitat for plants and wildlife, while creating a more natural beach”.

This twin attack on our beaches and seabeds means that, more than ever, we are coming to value the role sand plays in our environment. It isn’t just about the loss of aesthetically pleasing coastline (although there is a growing industry in artificial leisure beach construction and replacement), but facilitating the rapid expansion of the global economy. An expanding economy needs cities to operate in and to house its workers. Cities need building materials, with sand tending to be seen as infinite and cheap. But given that the global sand consumption in 2012 alone was enough to construct a wall 27m wide by 27m high around the equator, this attitude is starting to change.

As scientists write earnest papers about ‘sand scarcity’, and reports emerge of traders on the Shanghai Stock Exchange making up to £180,000 a year trading the commodity, the sands of time are literally running out in some territories in the Far East, with Pham Van Bac, director of Vietnam’s Department of Construction Materials under the Ministry of Construction, claiming that the country will have none left by 2020.

Dr Aurora Torres of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity has identified that, due to its scarcity, sand has become an attractive commodity on the black market. “Because sand has suddenly become a very valuable resource, ‘sand mafias’ have started operating in the sand-mining business,” she says, resulting in conflict and murder.

In terms of the environmental impact of sand mining, she says there is now “increased vulnerability to natural hazards such as storms and tsunamis”. The impact of the 2004 tsunami that hit Sri Lanka was made considerably worse by the intensive sand mining in the area. “The beaches disappeared, and so there was no natural barrier to stop the flooding.”

Sand extraction from rivers exposes the foundations of nearby buildings. The risk is serious. Following the collapse in 2000 of a bridge in Taiwan connecting the cities of Kaohsiung and Pingtung, sand mining was found to be the cause. It has also caused bridge collapses in Portugal and India.

Construction industry

The wrong kind of sand?

Despite being continually created in geological processes, sand is essentially a non-sustainable resource, as demand from the global construction industry (40 billion tonnes per annum) is double that of estimates for new sand being generated naturally.
Deserts make up one-third of the Earth’s land surface, of which 20 per cent is sandy desert. The problem for global construction (currently growing at 3 per cent, and worth $10.1tn annually by 2021) is that because wind-blown desert sand (pictured at top of page) has rounded grain profile and high dust content, it is the wrong kind of sand and is of little commercial use.
The $10bn per year concrete industry requires marine sand that has sharper edges, either dredged from the seabed or harvested from beaches, estuaries or rivers.
Jianguo Liu, who holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at Michigan State University in the US, says that because sand is seen as a “common resource”, unfettered mining and dredging has, “important implications for environmental justice”, adding that, “with increased attention to the complex linkages of sand scarcity, our global community can begin to understand how to use sand more sustainably”.

Despite the danger from tsunamis, hurricanes and flooding, half of the world’s population lives on the coast at a density twice that of the average for the rest of the world. This is no coincidence, says Dr Lucy Jones, formerly of the US Geological Survey and founder of the Dr Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society in California. “These people aren’t being irresponsible,” she says. “There is a causal link between what we need to sustain ourselves and where we live. Places where natural disasters occur tend to be places that provide for humans. We build cities on rivers because cities need water. We build cities on the coast because we need ports in order to trade and we need fish for food.” But with rising sea levels and depleted coastal protection due to sand loss, cities are becoming more at risk from the sea.

It’s not simply urban dwellers and workers that put themselves at risk or inflict pressure on the sustainability of coasts. Coastal tourism is huge. Although hard to separate figures for coast-specific holidays, the global hotel room count is 22 million. Even assuming one guest per room, this represents more people than live in Sri Lanka, the world’s 58th largest country by population. The market is worth $500bn per annum and is the most traded commodity on the internet, with a growth rate of 4 per cent.  

Although there is a downturn in the British visiting their domestic coastline, 41 per cent of all holidays taken by them will be to the coast abroad. All these travellers require somewhere to stay, a support infrastructure and perfect beaches. And because the beaches are being taken away by natural phenomena as well as sand poaching, to satisfy the cash-rich tourism industry it all has to be put back. Industry expert and travel writer Jules Stewart says: “These days tourists aren’t going to be happy when they arrive at their once-in-a-lifetime beach holiday (that they now take several times a year) to be told ‘that’s where the beach used to be’. They want golden sand. What nature, or the raw materials industry, has taken away, those connected to the world of tourism will put back.”

Stewart goes on to say that if you have any ambition to open a luxury hotel on the coast as a leisure resort, “if there’s no beach your options are limited. You’ve either got to get a contractor in at great expense to build you a beach where the old one was and risk it being washed away or being stolen. Or you can build a fake beach within the perimeter of your hotel. In the old days, developers just use to ‘borrow’ sand from nearby unused coastline. But these days there’s no such thing as unused coastline in places like the Caribbean or the Med.”

This second option, he says, also opens up the possibility of not even having to go to the coast for a beach holiday. “There are inland holiday resorts in Spain with fake beaches that are miles from the coast. Who cares? It’s better than going to the coast and finding there’s no sand. There are sandy rooftop beaches and beaches outside bars in just about every city in Europe.”

So it’s not all doom and gloom. The artificial beach – where the fun is real but the physical geography isn’t – is a growing business. But it’s a two-headed beast, with environmental restoration – or ‘beach nourishment’ – helping to save ecological niche habitats for coastal species affected by development, while full-scale coral-coloured strands are slung between headlands for oblivious tourists. But remember, your white sand could be black-market.

Facts and figures

The world’s coast

1. The total length of the world’s coastline is approximately 500,000km – 12 times the length of the Equator.
2. Coastal regions make up 20 per cent of the Earth’s surface and yet contain half of the world’s population. By 2025 coastal populations will account for 75 per cent of the total world population.
3. More than 70 per cent of the world’s megacities (more than 8 million inhabitants) are located in coast areas.
4. Half of the world’s cities with more than 1 million inhabitants are sited in and around estuaries.
5. The average human population density in coastal areas in 80/Km2 – twice the global average.
6. One third of the European Union population is located near the coast.
7. One third of coastal regions are under threat of degradation by infrastructure development and pollution. In half of these the threat is increasing.
8. The most threatened regions are Europe, with 86 per cent of its coastal ecosystem at risk, followed by Asia (69 per cent).
9. In the Pacific, 60 per cent of the coast is eroding at a rate of 1 metre or more per annum. In the Atlantic, 35 per cent.
10. The cost of maintaining marine coastal ecosystems in 0.2 per cent of it actual value, per annum.

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