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Why sand can be both abundant and scarce

Insa Wrede hg
June 25, 2019

Sand as a building material is essential especially for highly industrialized societies. It's widely used around the world, and there seems to be no shortage. However, demand can easily surpass supply in some regions.

Sandpit in Belgium
Image: picture-alliance/blickwinkel/W. Pattyn

On a global level, there's sand in abundance, meaning that often people tend to underestimate its value. In fact, in some parts of the world such as Dubai and Singapore, sand is getting scarce on construction sites and has to be partly imported despite being so heavy.

Sand is required for buildings and roads, with a lot of buildings containing ferroconcrete. Concrete in turn is composed of stone components and sand, plus water and cement. Roads also need stones of different grades and granulation. Suffice it to say that building 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) of a German highway needs 216,000 tons of sand, gravel and grit.

Demand for sand and gravel rising

Demand for sand is expected to surge further, given that an exploding world population will need more roads, bridges, houses, airports and a lot more. The global building boom has seen the demand for sand rise threefold in the past two decades, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Although precise figures are not available, there are estimates saying that between 30 billion tons and 50 billion tons of sand will soon be needed annually.

With that amount, you could theoretically build a 20-meter-wide (65-foot-wide) wall around the equator every year. But while we put more and more sand into our building projects, nature takes thousands of years to form the material.

Sandpit in Colombia
A gravel, sand and stone quarry in the municipality of Soacha on the outskirts of Bogota, ColombiaImage: Getty Images/AFP/G. Legaria

No scarcity as such

"In Germany, we're lucky to have seemingly endless deposits of sand and gravel," says Harald Elsner from the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR). He reckons that those deposits will peter out only in thousands of years from now.

Elsner adds that in principle there's no scarcity of sand on 90% of land globally. "There are some problems in some regions in Africa and Asia," he says. No figures are available for China, most likely the world's largest consumer of sand and gravel, but there haven't been any reports about a bottleneck there.

"Demand for sand and gravel is rising considerably," Elsner concludes, "but it's also the raw material that we have in the biggest abundance."

Abundant, but scarce nevertheless?

The fact that there's no scarcity of sand deposits in Germany doesn't mean there aren't any supply problems. "It's no longer like in the old day when you would get enough sand and gravel for your building project just like that, says Elsner, pointing out that nowadays you can easily wait for several weeks until you get the amount you need.

Supply pressures certainly have had an impact on prices. Elsner believes that in the future, too, the price for sand and gravel will rise by 5% to 10% annually. But why isn't more sand excavated in Germany to meet rising demand in time?

The answer is simple: Some 99% of all sand and gravel deposits in the country are not where the building material can be easily accessed, because the land above it is used differently. Elsner explains you cannot excavate anything in the country's large nature reserves and wetland protection areas. Nor can you use the areas that have already been developed.

Farmer tilling the land
In Germany, many farmers would hesitiate to sell their land to sand extraction companies, speculating that they can make more money if they wait for land prices to rise furtherImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

Low interest rates

In addition, low interest rates often stand in the way of exploiting a potential sand or gravel pit. Many landowners think it's not a good idea to sell their plots to sandpit operators. Instead, they hope for land prices to rise further and get more money out of it.

The managing director of Germany's Vero industry group, Raimo Benger, complains that there's certainly no lack of sand, "but a lack of permissions to extract the material," adding that oftentimes strict environmental regulations stand in the way of opening new sandpits.

He said the EU made it compulsory to protect rare species — "fair enough, but often it's not examined whether the protection of species and the given area's economic use cannot go hand in hand."

Promoting the protection of species?

Vero has emphasized time and again that new favorable biotopes are created during the extraction of sand from pits, but also later in the renaturalized areas.

But Christian Chwallek from Germany's Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) points out that while sandpits may create a favorable environment for some rare species, other rare species lose the biotope they've grown used to.

Chwallek stresses that the excavation areas in question are getting bigger and bigger, up to 100 hectares per case. This, he says, is also impacting people, "as we're speaking about open wounds for drinking water reservoirs, because protective layers of stone are removed."

He adds that especially along the Rhine river there are many water reservoirs that are protected and cleaned by untouched sand and gravel deposits. He believes that such areas have to be strictly protected.

The deputy director of the UN Environment Programme, Joyce Msuya, says "we're using up our sand budget a lot faster than nature can reproduce it." She demands that excavation be better regulated, even though — or because — annual demand for sand and gravel is forecast to rise by 5.5%.

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