I LOVE watching documentaries. Aside from enjoying 50-minute segments with no advertising, I marvel at stunning landscapes or underwater scenes, amazing animal footage, human stories of survival and creativity, and how things are made.
When I was growing up, our family religiously watched underwater explorations by Jacques Cousteau and his team and any mesmerizing animal encounters Sir David Attenborough allowed us to partake in via television.
This month, I came across a documentary on TVO with a topic that surprised even me, the environmentalist: I had no idea that we – around the globe – were experiencing Sand Wars. I was stunned.
Living near the sandy beaches of Lake Ontario’s shoreline, and having travelled to many European and Caribbean locales, it was news to me that shortage of sand was a problem.
The biggest appetite for sand comes from the construction industry. The material’s low cost, strength, and ease of use make it a dominant building material worldwide.
The quantities used are staggering. Construction of an average house uses 200 tons of sand, a hospital 3,000 tons, and each kilometre of highway 30,000 tons. Globally, 15 billion tons of sand are used every year.
“No other resource is used in such vast quantities as sand, maybe with the exception of water,” says Kiran Pereira, a researcher from London’s Kings College, in the film.
Rapidly growing cities with a huge construction boom, especially in wealthy places such as Dubai, created man-made land in the sea to circumvent excessive land purchase prices.
‘The Palm’ required 150 million tons of sand from their coastline, at a cost of $12 billion, and three times as much sand was used to create 300 small islands for ‘The World’ residential community (estimated at $14 billion).
Now those islands sit empty. After the global financial crisis in 2008, the project was halted and sits undeveloped, gradually being taken back by the ocean.
But hold on – how can Dubai be short of sand? It lies at the edge of a desert!
“Desert sand is the wrong kind,” explains Michael Welland, geologist and author of the book Sand. “The grains are very round and very smooth … they don’t stick together. You need sand that is more angular, and sticks together.”
Sand has a problem similar to oil: “Sand is not a sustainable resource,” Welland writes.
Much of the Earth’s surface sand has been extracted already. Attempts at retrieving sand from river dredging caused flooding in many areas. Exhaustion of land and beach reserves by wealthy Singapore forced neighbouring countries Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia to ban sand trade with them.
Huge dredging ships troll the oceans, each capable of sucking up 400,000 cubic metres of sand per day – and with it marine life. Sand is treated as a free resource and is entirely unregulated.
How this affects us
Rising Cost: Any resource that becomes difficult and expensive to find and extract will get more expensive. Anything made from sand may get pricier when the cost of concrete and windows goes up (sand being the key ingredient in glass).
Loss of real estate, including beaches: Many Canadians escape winter and flock south to Florida. Some of Florida’s beaches have been shrinking and receiving short-term restoration measures, though they last only a year or two.
Beachfront properties are getting under-washed and eventually become unstable and unlivable. Longer-term, would our Lake Ontario beaches and huge sandy expanses around Lake Huron, Georgian Bay, and Wasaga be safe?
Environmental Refugees: Ocean sand dredging destroys entire marine habitats and local fishing industries.
Putting a stop to ‘construction gluttony’ and real estate greed with strict regulations would be a start. Of Dubai’s many newly-built residential and commercial high-rises, the majority have remained completely empty, and their flagship Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, is 90 per cent unoccupied. This is repeated worldwide, where buildings remain vacant, often held by builders for investment purposes or on speculation, never become affordable to those most in need of housing. In Bombay, 50 per cent of housing is estimated to be empty, and in China 65 million apartments are unoccupied, yet construction continues.
For residential construction, straw-bale building is a proven, safe, and renewable building material to replace much of the concrete. North America already produces enough straw for its residential building needs. Straw provides better insulation, better fire-resistance than regular drywall, is earthquake proof, and reduces construction cost.
Ground-up glass from used bottles can replace some sand, as it has the same angular edges as grains of sand. This allows non-renewable sand to become a recyclable product. Tests show that this works and produces concrete with the right properties. This, and rubble from torn-down buildings, can replace large quantities of sand for road construction.
I cannot imagine anyone who would be okay with seeing their beach disappear.