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A sand shortage? The world is running out of a crucial — but under-appreciated — commodity

An insatiable global appetite for sand, one of the world’s most important but least appreciated commodities, is unlikely to let up anytime soon. The problem, however, is that this resource is slipping away. Our entire society is built on sand. It is the world’s most consumed raw material after water and an essential ingredient to our everyday lives. Sand is the primary substance used in the construction of roads, bridges, high-speed trains and even land regeneration projects. Sand, gravel and rock crushed together are melted down to make the glass used in every window, computer screen and smart phone. Even the production of silicon chips uses sand.

Yet, the world is facing a shortage — and climate scientists say it constitutes one of the greatest sustainability challenges of the 21st century. “Is it time for panicking? Well, that will certainly not help, but it is time to take a look and change our perception about sand,” Pascal Peduzzi, a climate scientist with the United Nations Environment Programme, said during a webinar hosted by think tank Chatham House. Peduzzi, who is the director of UNEP’s Global Resource Information Database in Geneva, Switzerland, described the global governance of sand resources as “the elephant in the room.”

“We just think that sand is everywhere. We never thought we would run out of sand, but it is starting in some places. It is about anticipating what can happen in the next decade or so because if we don’t look forward, if we don’t anticipate, we will have massive problems about sand supply but also about land planning,” he added. At present, it is not possible to accurately monitor global sand use. However, Peduzzi said it could be measured indirectly, citing a “very, very good” correlation between the use of sand and cement. The UN estimates that 4.1 billion tons of cement is produced every year, driven primarily by China, which constitutes 58% of today’s sand-fueled construction boom.

It takes 10 tons of sand to produce every ton of cement. This means that, for construction alone, the world consumes roughly 40 to 50 billion tons of sand on an annual basis. That’s enough to build a wall of 27 meters high by 27 meters wide that wraps around the planet every year. The global rate of sand use — which has tripled over the last two decades partially as a result of surging urbanization — far exceeds the natural rate at which sand is being replenished by the weathering of rocks by wind and water. Sand can be found on almost every country on Earth, blanketing deserts and lining coastlines around the world. But that is not to say that all sand is useful. Desert sand grains, eroded by the wind rather than water, is too smooth and rounded to bind together for construction purposes. The sand that is highly sought after is more angular and can lock together. It is typically sourced and extracted from seabeds, coastlines, quarries and rivers around the world.

A sand shortage? The world is running out of a crucial — but under-appreciated — commodity, CNBC, Mar 5

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