Sand builds the world around us – but it is running out. Worse, much of it is being mined illegally, not only in South Africa, but in other parts of the world. WANITA WALLACE reports

The United Nations (UN) has warned that the sands of time are running out. In a recently released report, the organisation reveals that there will not be enough sand and gravel left in the world’s terrestrial, riverine and marine environments to meet the demands of ten-billion people unless effective policy, planning, regulation and management is introduced.

The report, entitled 2019 Sand and Sustainability: Finding New Solutions for Environmental Governance of Global Sand Resources, says sand and gravel are the unrecognised foundational materials of the global economy. “They are mined from natural sources the world over, with aggregates accounting for the largest volume of extracted material. Most of the mined resources are consumed regionally because of high cost of transport – but little data exists regarding exact volumes, sources or uses.”

Nico Pienaar, director of the Aggregate and Sand Producers Association of South Africa (ASPASA), concurs. “Sand is one of the most extracted minerals in the world, but, with few exceptions, volumes are not well recorded, here or elsewhere,” he says.

According to the UN report, China is the top consumer of sand, since it produces the most cement globally – accounting for an estimated 2,4-billion tonnes in 2017. India follows at 270-million tonnes, with the United States (US) at 86,3-million tonnes.

The report states that for every tonne of cement consumed, ten tonnes of aggregate is used. By 2030, when global annual cement production is predicted to reach 4,83-billion tonnes, it warns that aggregate use is likely to rise to about 50-billion tonnes.

Additionally, the report notes that while some sand is mined legally, in many regions of the world much is extracted and traded illegally, at times by organised crime syndicates. “It’s a global phenomenon,” says Romy Chevallier, senior researcher at the Governance of Africa’s Resource Programme for the South African Institute of International Affairs. “In countries such as India and Pakistan, there are actually sand wars going on. Syndicates have developed and they all trade in illegal sand.”

According to the UN report, half of the sand mined in Morocco – representing about ten-million cubic metres a year – comes from illegal coastal extraction. Sand smugglers have transformed a large beach between Safi and Essouira into a rocky landscape. Sand is often removed from other beaches to build hotels, roads and tourism-related infrastructure. In some locations, continued construction is likely to lead to an unsustainable situation and destruction of the main natural attraction for visitors – the beaches themselves.

In this respect, Asilah, in northern Morocco, has suffered severe erosion of its beaches and surrounding areas as a result of non-regulated mining activity, with many structures near the coast now in danger of collapsing, the report notes.

In South Africa, sand is classified as a mineral under the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA). A licence is required to mine sand. “Many people are under the impression that when explosives aren’t used in its extraction – in other words it is dug out mechanically or by hand – no authorisation is required,” says Pienaar.

“However, the law is clear. As soon as sand is removed from its natural state, it is being mined. Many farmers remove it from their farms. This is fine, but it may not be sold. If it is sold then it is classified as mining,” Pienaar explains.

He says: “The Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) is supposed to keep a tally of how much sand is being mined, but it has never got this right. Illegal mining is a major challenge. ASAPA members report the quantities they extract, but illegal miners don’t, so nobody knows exactly what volumes are being taken out. This is unfair competition – we comply, illegal miners don’t and regulators turn a blind eye.”

In a report entitled Illegal Sand Mining in South Africa, Chevallier says the DMR has national jurisdiction over the regulation of sand mining. The key national statute, the MPRDA, places all mineral resources in South Africa, including natural sand, under the custodianship of the state. Any person who wants to extract sand must apply for the right to do so, and the act sets out a regulatory regime governing the exploitation of the resource, applied through the administration of various rights and permits.

Chevallier says: “Illegal sand mining is occurring throughout South Africa, not only in riparian environments – the interface between land and a river or stream – but also in some of our protected areas in Limpopo and near the Kruger National Park. There are many accounts of illegal sand mining in river beds. I have even seen illegal sand mining in significant environments like mangrove forests, or in wetland areas. I have been doing research in Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya – those countries are also struggling to curb illegal sand extraction.”

She adds: “One of the reasons why sand extraction is so attractive in riparian areas is that it doesn’t come from a salty source. It is washed by the fresh water system, which means, unlike sea sand, it doesn’t contain corrosive elements.”

In her report, Chevallier says that apart from causing depletion, illegal sand mining also damages habitats through the destruction of vegetation, riverbanks and wetland systems. It can alter the flow of a river and fragment ecological corridors. Furthermore, illegal sites are not rehabilitated and usually become overgrown with invasive alien vegetation.

She adds that unregulated sand mining also results in high levels of disturbance caused by the construction of haphazard roads – often across flood plains – and the destruction of aquatic habitats through dredging and the use of mechanical diggers. Deep holes left after excavation are lethal hazards to local people, especially children.

Chevallier says: “There were examples in KwaZulu-Natal where children and cattle have fallen into dongas created by sand mining. There are also issues regarding public infrastructure. An example is an electricity pylon that fell over because of illegal mining activity around its base.”

In her report Pienaar states: “Better enforcement is needed to discourage illegal activities and eventually prohibit the extraction of all river and estuarine sand. However, finding an alternative to sand won’t be easy. I’d say it’s probably impossible. We need to understand why we use sand when mixing concrete – small particles of sand fill up voids between bigger stones and the cement (which acts as the glue) – then binds everything together.”

The UN report points out that reduction of natural sand use can be achieved through some tried and tested methods, as well as through emerging technologies and materials. Experimentation has led to green concrete forms such as bottom-ash or fly ash mixtures, while some countries have supported widespread, aggregate recycling initiatives.

The report concludes that sand production is not rocket science. At its most basic, it needs boats and pumps, shovels and trucks, as well as hammers and rocks. The main limitation to responsible sand extraction is not technical; it is an awareness and governance issue. A paradigm of infinite sand resources still dominates. Challenging this is the difficult task ahead as we aim for a rapid, yet smooth, transition to more sustainable sourcing, while reducing consumption and demand in parallel.

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