Sand. If we think about it at all, it’s probably in relation to a relaxing day at the beach.
But sand is also at the center of a vast multinational criminal trade that’s having a catastrophic impact on the health of the planet.
Sand’s value stems from its integral role in the production of concrete, which is a necessary ingredient in both the physical and economic growth of countries across the globe. “Sand is so valuable as a resource that people are and have been killed over it,” says Julian Leyland, a professor of geography and environmental science at the University of Southampton.
And it’s not just any sand that can be used to make high-quality concrete. Jagged, sharp-shaped river sand is particularly sought after because, unlike smooth desert sand, it bonds well with cement.
River sand is also used in land reclamation projects in countries like Singapore, which buys more than 210 million tons of sand annually, making it the world’s largest sand importer. Tiny Singapore has enjoyed a 22 percent growth in territory over the last 60 years. That expansion, and its accompanying economic growth, has been made possible by a “massive” amount of sand, says sustainability strategist Madhumitha Ardhanari.
One valuable source of river sand is Bangladesh, known as the “land of rivers.” Sand mining in Bangladesh is big business, and although it is supposed to be regulated, Bangladeshi sand miners often expand their operations beyond the areas they have legally leased.
Syeda Riswani Hasan, an attorney with the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, estimates 60 percent to 70 percent of Bangladeshi sand on the market is illegally mined.
“Sand here in Bangladesh has blood stains on it,” she says. “The entire river ecosystem...is bearing the brunt of sand mining.”
That’s particularly dangerous in a country in which people get 60 percent of all their animal protein from river fish and a third of all travel takes place on the very rivers that are being exploited. Hasan warns that between 20 and 50 million Bangladeshis are expected to be displaced from coastal areas by 2050 due to river erosion and rising sea levels. This would be the largest migration in the history of the world.
So, why isn’t sand mining better policed? Hasan describes a “thoroughly corrupt” system in which authorities are bribed to look the other way. Leyland notes that nations are incentivized to turn a blind eye to illegal sand mining to further their own economic goals.
“There’s a real push for development...and so that’s really fueled their demand for sand,” she says.
Hasan foresees the insatiable demand for sand as potentially ruinous for Bangladesh. “Countries who do not want to destroy their own environment will be relying on Bangladesh because enforcement is very weak here,” she says. “And if there is more demand for sand, the entire river ecosystem of the country will simply collapse.”
To make matters worse, there is no international body tracking the sand trade.
Nations frequently use third-party intermediaries to trade sand, and details are closely guarded by the parties involved. Sand miners have been known to use harassment, intimidation, and even physical assault to prevent journalists and researchers from asking questions.
“Local people are scared now to speak against the sand miners because they see that the law-enforcing agencies, the local politicians, the corrupt bureaucrats, they are out there to silence opposing voices against illegal sand mining,” Hasan said.
Scientists and researchers are currently developing promising techniques, using satellite imagery and artificial intelligence, to track the sand trade, but the future of this type of research is in jeopardy due to a lack of funding. Without monitoring, Leyland says, sand mining is likely to increase, a potentially devastating outcome for the people that live near rivers, and the communities that rely on those rivers for sustenance.
“It’s very easy to sit here and say that sand mining is bad,” he says. “The reality, of course, is that we’re part of that insatiable development.”