Sand traditionally has been a local product. However, regional shortages and sand mining bans in some countries are turning it into a globalized commodity. Its international trade value has skyrocketed, increasing almost sixfold in the last 25 years. Profits from sand mining frequently spur profiteering. In response to rampant violence stemming from competition for sand, the government of Hong Kong established a state monopoly over sand mining and trade in the early 1900s that lasted until 1981. Today organized crime groups in India, Italy and elsewhere conduct illegal trade in soil and sand. Singapore’s high-volume sand imports have drawn it into disputes with Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia.
Skyrocketing demand, combined with unfettered mining to meet it, is creating the perfect recipe for shortages. Plentiful evidence strongly suggests that sand is becoming increasingly scarce in many regions. For example, in Vietnam domestic demand for sand exceeds the country’s total reserves. If this mismatch continues, the country may run out of construction sand by 2020, according to recent statements from the country’s Ministry of Construction.
In our view, it is essential to understand what happens at the places where sand is mined, where it is used and many impacted points in between in order to craft workable policies. We are analyzing those questions through a systems integration approach that allows us to better understand socioeconomic and environmental interactions over distances and time. Based on what we have already learned, we believe it is time to develop international conventions to regulate sand mining, use and trade.