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UN officials are calling for better governance of sand resources following reports that the global appetite for sand and unsustainable extraction practices are damaging the environment. Dialogue with Swiss concrete producer LafargeHolcim is viewed as critical to progress.
According to a report presented at the United Nations Environment Assembly on Tuesday, global sand and gravel demand has increased three-fold over the last two decades, reaching 40 to 50 billion tons per year. Sand and gravel resources are now the second-largest resource extracted and traded by volume, after water.
Indispensable for the production of concrete, asphalt and glass, sand demand is booming with shifting consumption patterns, growing populations and increasing urbanisation. International trade in sand and gravel is forecasted to rise by 5.5% a year.
Smart sand use
Pascal Peduzzi of the University of Geneva, which was involved in the study, remarked that, “We aren’t very smart about how we use sand, because we think, this is just sand.”
Growing use of sand extraction bans, international sourcing of sand for land reclamation projects and impacts of uncontrolled sand extraction beyond national borders are quickly making this a transnational issue in need of global governance guidelines, the UN pointed out.
Peduzzi said dialogue between the UN and Swiss cement producer LafargeHolcim is crucial to progress “given the importance” of this company in the sector. Some of the largest extractive companies are based in Europe.
‘Sand mafias’ on the rise
The report, which was funded by the Swiss federal environmental office, warns that unsustainable, and sometimes illegal sand extraction is contributing to pollution, flooding, and droughts. Damming and extraction have reduced sediment delivery from rivers to many coastal areas, leading to reduced deposits in river deltas and accelerated beach erosion.
“We have been exceeding easily available sand resources at a growing rate for decades,” explained Joyce Myusa, acting director of UNEP, in the report. It is also one of the least-regulated resources in many regions, leading to environmentally damaging extractive practices in sensitive terrestrial, riverine and ocean ecosystems, the report found.
The report also notes that “sand mafias”, which rely on illegal extraction practices, are growing in many regions. Activists who oppose criminal groups linked to sand have been threatened or killed, especially for the local trade in these materials.
Sand removal can also jeopardise tourism and local employment, especially for people who depend on crab populations that decline when sand is removed from rivers and mangrove forests.