Sand Sustainability Faces a Crisis

The global urbanisation boom is devouring colossal amounts of sand – the key ingredient of concrete and asphalt” – The Guardian.

The Caribbean is known for its beautiful clear blue waters and sandy beaches and is an exotic getaway for holiday makers.  This has lead to continuous development for the Caribbean as both local and international hotel brands replace chattel houses and expanses of vegetation of the past, and more imminently, the rebuild in the aftermath of hurricanes Maria and Irma.  Urban development has also seen significant growth.  The addition of sand needed as an integral part of construction in the making of cement materials has caused a surge in the demand.

Construction sand is disappearing at levels against which even the natural forces of beach erosion cannot compete. This is if the findings of the new research are true. According to a four-author study released in Science, an academic journal, because of the low cost and ready availability of sand, it is subject to exploitation, over-mining and degradation.

The study, by Aurora Torres, Jodi Brandt, Kristen Lear and Jianguo Liu, indicates that between 1900 and 2010, the global volume of natural resources used in buildings and transport infrastructure increased 23-fold. Sand gravel is the largest portion of these primary material inputs (79% or 28.6 gigatons per year in 2010) and is the most extracted group of materials worldwide, exceeding fossil fuels and biomass (2).

Ready Mix Cement being poured on site
Ready Mix Cement being poured on location in Barbados

Construction sand is ground stone and differs country by country or even geological formation. Construction sand is often washed to remove salt and other deposits, and is coarse enough for use in brickwork, paving, mixing mortar, laying foundations and smoothing floors. Sand is a key ingredient for concrete, roads, glass and electronics.

Preconco, the leading precast concrete factory in Barbados
Preconco, the leading precast concrete factory in the Caribbean

In 2010, nations mined about 11 billion tonnes of sand just for construction. Extraction rates were reported to be highest in the Asia-Pacific, followed by Europe and North America. Production and use of construction sand and gravel were valued at US$8.9 billion in 2016 in the United States, and production has increased by 24 percent in the past five years.

Blame urbanisation?

Sand mining was not as important a factor until wealth increased and more people could afford to change their wooden homes to brick structures or move to big cities. Countries want better paved roads for their increasingly affluent citizens and skyscrapers must be built! All require sand.

Dangerous mining practices

The negative consequences of overexploiting sand are more keenly felt in poorer regions where sand is mined. Satellite imagery shows how extensive sand extraction physically alters rivers and their banks and even coastal ecosystems. The unconstrained practice increases suspended sediments and causes erosion.

Bulldozer at work in a sand quarry
Bulldozer at work in a sand quarry.  Barbados to date has extracted from land quarries.

In January 2015, C.O. Williams Sand and Lime Quarry began making sand from stone, ending the monopoly of natural sand mining of The Walker’s Sand Mines. This would have provided consumers with a more sustainable option. Mr. Eerie Beale, Quarry Manager of C.O. Williams Sand and Lime, told Construction Caribbean that the company has since been creating two grades of sand from limestone rock. He also says the quality has not been questioned and that the sand is used by leading companies in Barbados.

C.O. Williams Sand Quarry Barbados
C.O. Williams Sand Quarry Barbados showing one of the safer forms of sand extraction

Management at The Walker’s Sand Quarry said they could not “give any information” about the stock of construction sand in Barbados nor whether the levels mined were sustainable. Officials at the Environmental Protection Department said it did not come under their portfolio.

In the Caribbean, sand mining reached a dangerous level several years ago. Environmentalists in Barbuda were warning that sand mining has exceeded safe limits from as far back as 2006. Marine biologist John Mussington told IPS that he was worried Barbuda is “digging its way off the planet.” Sand mining in Barbuda began in 1976 and by the mid-1990s. In 2006, the technicians from the environment division called for an immediate halt to sand mining,” Mussington told IPS.

As land quarries become exhausted, some sand miners are turning to river beds and seabeds.  In the neighbouring island of Nevis, authorities have adopted a zero-tolerance approach to sand mining.

One of the region’s largest sand theft operations targeted Jamaica, where nearly 100 truckloads were swiped from private property in the northwest, exposing protected mangroves.

The Caribbean has the opportunity to look to the world and see thousands of ships vacuum up millions of tonnes of sand from the seabed each year, tearing up habitats and muddying waters with sand that can affect marine life.   This is the same as overfishing and over foresting, all unsustainable.

Caribbean officials in some islands have stepped up to try to rectify these problems by putting laws in place with strict fines and jail time, Grenada being a prime example.   This is pertinent in protecting our beaches to prevent the loss of tourists who come to enjoy our sea and sand and also in protecting our ecosystem.

Solutions

We need to establish a supply of sand that can be mined sustainably however the great construction boom is proving that the demand for it, is anything but.

All home builders can plan building projects with environmental factors in mind. Order sand only when needed and find ways to protect the sand from being washed away during heavy rain by covering with tarpaulins.

Construction Caribbean supports the efforts of The Walkers Sand Quarry in Barbados to restore, the 300 acres of land which has been quarried for 50 years, back to ecological health.

 

Sources:

  1. Over-mining – https://theconversation.com/the-world-is-facing-a-global-sand-crisis-83557
  2. Uses – https://www.onlinesand.co.uk/knowledge-base/general-info/play-sand-vs-builders-sand
  3. Nevis – http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/06/facing-tough-times-barbuda-continues-sand-mining-despite-warnings/
  4. Cities – https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/feb/27/sand-mining-global-environmental-crisis-never-heard

 

 

Nichole Murray

Nichole Murray is a seasoned Human Interest Writer and Communications Specialist. With a BA Psychology, Associate Degree Mass Communications, Nichole has been operating her own business as a Communications Specialist for the last 8 years. Now heading up the Caribbean Christian Media Network and Merit International Co. Ltd, Nichole has a passion for promoting the Caribbean.
She has utilized her Social Media assets including Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, Google+ and Twitter accounts to create spaces for her native Barbados and for the Caribbean.

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