Geopolitics

The Next Ecological Plague: Sand Trafficking

As a result of the boom construction, worldwide demand for sand has led to an explosion of illicit trafficking in what would have seemed like a limitless resource.

The Center Core of the Palm Jumeirah, Mar. 2008
The Center Core of the Palm Jumeirah, Mar. 2008
Richard Hiault

LE MATELIER â€" “The ‘Le Matelier’ project? We don’t want it." Didier Quentin, mayor of the town of Royan, is backed in his fight by six other mayors along the same coast in southwestern France to fight the removal and commercialization of the beach sand and gravel in the Gironde estuary.

The coveted site is located a few cable-lengths away from the coast, just opposite the tourist town of Marthes-La Palmyre, in the locality known as the “Le Matelier.”

Two companies, Granulats Ouest and Dragages Transports et Travaux Maritimes are however considering extracting for 30 years some 13 million cubic meters of aggregate.

“We don’t want to play God,” insists Quentin, who is also a member of the French Parliament, and is trying to pressure to officials in Paris. “Our coastline is fragile, as we were able to see during the 1999 and 2010 storms. The sandbanks break up the swell. If you reduce them through industrial exploitation, who knows what will happen. Coastal erosion could accelerate and the risk of submersion intensifies."

Offshore sand

This ongoing local power struggle is a perfect illustration of the challenges posed by the growing global sand and gravel exploitation, as industrialists increasingly turn towards offshore sand, along the continental shelf, sometimes arriving on coastal beaches.

Though beach sand exploitation represents only 2.5% of the total production in Europe, experts warn that it is rising. “Until recently, sand was extracted from quarries and riverbeds; however, the exploitation of sea aggregate is on the rise given the relative depletion of land resources. On the global level, growth is exponential,” notes Pascal Peduzzi, a researcher from the United Nations Environment Program. “We should undoubtedly be concerned about future sand supplies. Sand is rarer than we used to think."

A curious statement, to say the least, seeing as “on the global scale, sand seems inexhaustible, as it is estimated there are 120 million tons. "The number of grains of sand on the planet is equivalent to the number of stars in the universe,” quips Eric Chaumillon, a marine geology at the University of La Rochelle.

Still, much of the sand is far from being exploitable. It is either buried too deep under the sea, or its component structure makes it unsuitable for exploitation. There are three categories, Chaumillon explains: The “aeolian” sand from deserts. Plentiful, its grain, worn out and round, makes it almost unusable. The “fluviatile” sand, that can be found on ancient and current riverbeds, and offshore near estuaries, is, on the other hand, little worn and very angular.

"The third, between the first two, is made up of beach sand,” says Chaumillon. Only the last two are coveted and exploited for global needs. And they’re huge.

Growing demand

The construction industry is the first in line, using it for its buildings, bridges, dams, but also roads, railways, seawalls. About 200 tons of sand are required for an average-sized house, 3,000 for a hospital, 30,000 for one kilometer of highway, or even 12 million for a nuclear power plant. The backfilling of beaches and poldering make up the second use of sand. Then comes industrial consumption: the production of glass, photovoltaic cells or needs linked to the hydraulic fracturing of shale oil.

“Today, aggregate represents the second most mass-consumed natural resource, after water, but before oil and gas,” notes Chaumillon.

Still, there is a lack of precise statistics, as no international organization has taken an inventory of the global sand production and consumption. Developed countries have released figures, but developing and emerging countries don’t have data.

“Overall, between 50 and 60 billion tons of material are extracted on a global scale every year, sand and gravel represent 68% to 85% of the total,” explains Peduzzi, citing a study published in March 2014.

Based only on the production of concrete (one-third cement for two-thirds of sand), 30 billion tons of sand are consumed every year, with China single-handedly accounting for 60% of the total. “In the past four years, China has consumed as much sand as the United States in one century,” notes Peduzzi.

Increase of the global population, growing urbanization with more megacities, economic expansion of developing countries, multiplication of tourist hotel complexes... A large numbers of factors are coming together to lead to an always increasing demand for sand.

The thirst is such that its extraction is strongly coveted; and though sand has been over-exploited for decades, the international community is only now starting to realize the risks. Sand exploitation may be strictly supervised in developed countries, but it’s not the case in developing and emerging countries. “If no supervising political measure is implemented, criminal networks can take hold of the market,” says Laure Simplet, a geology engineer from the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea.

Black markets

One place to look for illicit activities is wadi sand extraction in North Africa. In Oran, Algeria, authorities say some 200 people were arrested in 2015 for sand looting. Often organized in specialized networks, they strike at night to supply illegal quarries or construction sites. In Morocco, some beaches have straight out disappeared.

Bruce Edwards, writing in the International Monetary Fund journal Finance & Development in December, said that half of the sand used in construction in Morocco â€" 10 million cubic meters â€" comes from illegal coastal sand extraction. Meanwhile, in some parts of India, cartels control the supply, as the price of sand has soared radically with the housing boom over the past decade.

In Senegal last year, President Macky Sall asked the government to take measures “to put an end to the illegal and large-scale extraction of beach sand and dunes on coastlines.” Entire islands have even disappeared in Asia. Singapore’s sand-buying frenzy to continuously extend its territory â€" the surface of the island increased by 20% in 40 years â€" has created tensions. Its extension was made at the cost of some 20 Indonesian islands that disappeared from the face of Earth before Jakarta prohibited, in the early 2000s, the exportation of sand.

“Before exporting sand was banned from Indonesia, but also Thailand and Malaysia, the price of a ton of sand in the region was around $3. It’s now gone up to $190,” says Peduzzi.

Today, Singapore reportedly continues to illegally import sand from Cambodia and Vietnam. And trafficking through dealers and fictitious companies also reportedly continues.

More questions

Some colossal projects also raise questions. Starting with Dubai. The construction of artificial islands, The Palm and The World, along its coast, for its wealthy clients, required the importation of sea sand, which wound up coming from Australia, for respectively 150 and 500 million tons. In the same way, what’s the use of having the tallest tower in the world, the Burj Khalifa, when one third of its surface is unoccupied?

“We know sand and gravel extraction is superior to the replenishment of the resources,” explains Pascal Peduzzi.

Eric Chaumillon notes that “sand and aggregate are formed on geological time scales. Several thousands, even millions of years are required for them to be replenished.”

Regeneration is also being disturbed by the multitude of dams built. The International Commission on Large Dams has listed about 60,000 in the world, and one-fourth of the world’s sand could be stuck because of these constructions. With the exploitation of riverbeds, 50% of river sand will never see the sea.

This is a real problem. Very often, we resort to what’s easiest. But by extracting large quantities of sand on a beach, in a riverbed or at the bottom of the sea, the ecosystem becomes seriously affected. If cyclone Sandy devastated the east coast of the U.S. in late 2012, it’s partly because beaches have relatively disappeared, as they made up natural barriers against such storms.

This is part of why people in Royan and other French towns nearby don’t want the “Matelier” project. At a time where sustainable development has never seemed more important, it’s more than time to do dig in and think hard about the preciousness of sand.

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.

[*Italian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."

🇸🇩💥  IN OTHER NEWS

Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
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