THE MINERS generally prefer to work under cover of darkness. This drag is more cheeky. It is not yet sunset when the boat’s crew begins to suck the sand from the river bed and pump it to a nearby shore, where it will be collected and sold. At least seven barges do the same on this stretch of the Red River, about an hour’s drive from Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. These teams often work without the right licenses, but the rewards outweigh the risk. While the average Vietnamese earns $ 269 a month, miners can earn between $ 700 and $ 1,000 for each load of boat they pick up. The teams working here have deposited so much sand on the bank that dunes have formed.
There has probably never been a better time to work in the sand industry. The world uses almost 50 billion tonnes of sand and gravel a year, almost twice as much as a decade ago. No other natural resource is extracted and marketed on such an epic scale, barwater.
Demand is strongest in Asia, where cities are growing rapidly (sand is the main ingredient in concrete, asphalt and glass). China obtained more cement between 2011 and 2013 than America throughout the 20th century (the use of cement is strongly correlated with that of sand). Since the 1960s, Singapore – the world’s largest importer of sand – has expanded its territory by almost a quarter, mainly by dumping it into the sea. OECD construction industry demand for sand and gravel will double in the next 40 years. No wonder then that the price of sand is skyrocketing. In Vietnam in 2017, it quadrupled in just one year.
In popular imagination, sand is synonymous with limitless. In reality, it is a rare commodity, for which manufacturers are now struggling. Not just any old grain will do. The United Arab Emirates is carpeted with dunes, but nevertheless imports sand because the type shaken by the desert winds is too fine to be transformed into cement. The sand formed by the water is coarser and therefore binds better. The extraction of coasts and rivers is therefore increasing sharply. But according to the United Nations environment program (UNEP), Asians collect sand more quickly than it can be reconstituted naturally. In Indonesia, some two dozen small islands have disappeared since 2005. Vietnam plans to run out of sand this year.
All of this has an environmental cost. The removal of sand from river beds deprives fish of places to live, feed and spawn. It is believed to have contributed to the extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin. In addition, according to WWF, a conservation group, up to 90% of the sediments that once flowed in the Mekong, Yangzi and Ganges rivers are trapped behind dams or stolen by miners, thus depriving their deltas of the two nutrients that make them fertile and of the reconstruction which against coastal erosion. As sea levels rise with climate change, salt water rises on rivers in Australia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, among others, and crop yields decrease in affected areas. The Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture has warned that seawater could travel up to 110 km along the Mekong River this winter. The last time this happened, in 2016, 1,600 square kilometers of land was destroyed, resulting in losses of $ 237 million. Residents have previously reported seeing dead fish floating on the water.
Nguyen Van Thoan, a farmer whose pomelo orchard is located not far down from the barges that scour the Red River, says that 30 years ago, a kilometer of land stood between his house and the river. Today, only 20 meters separate them. He accuses the miners of sand. The same is true for the 6,000 fishermen who have had to abandon their coastal villages in the Indian state of Kerala in recent years after extraction and erosion have left them vulnerable to flooding.
It is difficult to curb the extraction of sand because much of it is unregulated. It is estimated that only two-fifths of the sand mined worldwide each year is legally traded, according to the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. In Shanghai, the Yangzi miners escape the authorities by hacking into transponders that broadcast the positions of the ships and cloning their coordinates. It is better, of course, to co-opt the officials. Ministers of several state governments in India have been accused of encouraging or protecting the illegal exploitation of sand. “Everyone’s finger on the cake,” says Sumaira Abdulali of the Awaaz Foundation, a charity in Mumbai. She says she was attacked twice for her efforts to stop the miners.
Ms. Abdulali is nevertheless “a little optimistic”. Scientists are experimenting with alternatives to concrete and cement. Architects are trying to find ways to use these materials more sparingly. Even the strange government is taking action. In 2018, Maharashtra adopted a regulation obliging contractors to use plastic waste as a filling material during the construction or repair of roads. Singapore creates a new piece of land by emptying it with water rather than stacking it with sand. Kiran Pereira of SandStories.org, who promotes awareness of the issue, says “there are many solutions” if only governments found the will to implement them. It’s time to get your head out of the sand. ■
Correction (January 24, 2020): The original version of this article incorrectly stated that sand is the largest ingredient in cement. Sand is actually the biggest ingredient in concrete, which also uses cement.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Bring me a nightmare”