As China struggles for influence in Asia, an unusual struggle is quietly unfolding in the South China Sea: a battle for sand.
For years, Beijing has regularly deployed thousands of Chinese dredging vesselscolossal vessels capable of sucking up thousands of tons of sand. Their mission is clear: to increase the pressure and bring back sand, whole cargoes. From the shores of Taiwan to the coast of the Philippines, China has transported enough material to expand its territory and manufacture islands in disputed waters.
The mobilization of flirts is part of “Beijing’s continuing malign effort to use coercion without violence,” said Ryan Hass, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s one of the many tools in their toolbox.”
For a raw material that seems to be endlessly available, sand might seem like a curious geopolitical objective. But the resource is more vital — and usable quantities are more limited — than one might think. Essential for everything from concrete to glass, modern civilizations are forged with sand, and China’s demand has only skyrocketed as it pushes ahead with its ambitious development plans.
“Our society is literally built on sand,” said Pascal Peduzzi, director of GRID-Geneva at the United Nations Environment Programme. “We are totally dependent on this material.”
This addiction has come at a high cost. As countries feed their appetite for sand, the extraction boom has come at an alarming cost: endangered islands, shrinking rivers, collapsing ecosystems and the rise of powerful sand mafias. For many people, the worst may be yet to come. Since sand protects inland regions from flooding, overexploitation puts coastal communities at risk, a threat that will only grow as climate change causes sea levels to rise. But even with these risks, the governments still don’t know exactly how much sand is being mined, or even realize that a crisis is looming.
“It really puts lives at risk,” said Kiran Pereira, the author of Sand stories. “We’re kind of eating away at our own defenses.”
When the Romans built the Pantheon, they used richly colored volcanic sand that they drew from the ash flow of a nearby volcano. After mixing the red and black granules with limestone, they discovered that they could produce a solid mortarthe one that allowed the ancient temple to survive thousands of years.
Centuries later, modern civilizations still revolve around sand. All countries need the resource, as mixing it with cement and crushed rock produces the concrete needed for construction, while the addition of heat and chemical treatments turns it into glass. Today, sand is crucial for the development of skyscrapers, highways and even smartphone screens.
“Sand is really the key ingredient in our modern society,” said Mette Bendixen, assistant professor at McGill University.
As countries promote massive infrastructure booms, demand for the resource has been explosive. Sand is the world’s most mined resource after water, accounting for the vast majority – almost 85% – of global mining operations. “We’ve seen exponential growth in the use of sand over the last 20 to 30 years,” said Chatham House research associate Oli Brown.
Most of this demand comes from China which, in the space of barely three years used more cement than the United States for the entire 20th century. By looting national rivers and lakes, and now encroaching on the waters of its neighbours, Beijing has extracted the billions of tons of sand needed to build its sprawling cities and carve out new territories.
Sand can be plentiful, but not all types are suitable for construction. Neither ocean nor desert sand can be used for concrete. Windswept desert granules are too smooth, while salt-riddled sea sand is best suited for land reclamation.
The most optimal sand is drawn from rivers, with its water-eroded angular edges that bond well to the cement. Not all countries have sufficient supplies either; governments that desperately need more sand must pay the price. Singapore, for example, disbursed hundreds of millions of dollars to import over 500 million tons from its neighbors until they ban the trade.
Mining tends to conjure up images of greedy corporations rolling in wealth, but many miners live a harsher reality. In India, some minors risk of drowning to make ends meet, diving to dangerous depths to scoop sand into their iron buckets. In Kenya, others painstakingly dig the sand with shovels, grueling work which makes them vulnerable to the collapse of rock walls. Salaries are meager and mining can be fatal. People have died in the quarries.
Many sand miners are “just about to survive,” Peduzzi said. “They have no other choice.”
Elsewhere, illegal sand mining has turned into a highly lucrative business that has fueled illicit networks. The sand is in a “blind spot”, Pereira said. “It’s an important resource, yet no one keeps track of how much is being extracted.” She added: “That kind of creates an environment where corruption can thrive.”
Take India, where parts of the industry are now dominated by sand mafia, a powerful and elite network of individuals that may include politicians and wealthy businessmen. Corruption can to be cut offand the high profit margins of the resource are often enticing but also dangerous.
“These are powerful people, politically well-connected people, who can control the sand trade in a lot of regions,” Pereira said. “They are quite territorial so they can get quite aggressive if someone encroaches on their territory. They can be quite ruthless.
Run-ins with the Sand Mafia can be death sentences. Over the past two years, nearly 200 people have reportedly been killed in connection with sand mining operations in India. People who challenge the sand mafia “get attacked, get murdered, get fired from their jobs,” said Sumaira Abdulali, founder of the Awaaz Foundation, an Indian non-governmental organization.
“People are afraid to speak up,” she added. “The threat is very real.
Even though rivers are ripped out and islands submerged, no one knows exactly how much sand is mined. Since regulations are fragmented and many miners operate informally, global oversight is virtually non-existent. In 2019, the United Nations had to rely on cement production data to get a rough annual estimate of sand use at 40 billion tons.
It’s an extremely fast rate of extraction that could have catastrophic impacts. The current scale of mining is “unprecedented”, Pereira said. “It’s not something nature can handle. This can lock in some pretty drastic changes.
Some of this damage has already been blocked. After many years of sand mining, at least two dozen Indonesian islands disappeared. Across the South China Sea, the depletion of the vast Mekong River in Vietnam has strained ecosystems and destroys the bank. And in Mozambique, once-lush beaches have been completely strippedleaving the country more vulnerable to severe flooding.
This degradation is particularly detrimental to local communities, which are often on the front line of climate change. In Vietnam, a half-mile area of homes and roads collapsed into the Van Nao River after its bank, weakened by years of dredging, finally collapsed. Farming communities are often deprived of land and livelihoods. In Burma, many farmers have lost hectares of fertile land to erosion exacerbated by sand mining.
As the sea level rises, these impacts could become particularly severe. The sand serves as natural defense against storms and erosion. Without it, coastal communities are more exposed to flooding and the devastating effects of storms. And with a large share of the world’s population living in coastal areas, the stakes are high, said Arpita Bisht, a researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam. In the United States, nearly 40% of the population resides in coastal regions; worldwide, eight of the 10 largest cities are coastal.
“We think sand is something that’s everywhere, but now we realize we’re taking in so much sand that it’s really not sustainable,” Bendixen said.
These tensions will only increase as more countries turn to building and expanding infrastructure to accommodate growing populations. “Population growth, rural exodus and catch-up development are three factors that will put exponential pressure on sand resources,” Peduzzi said. “It is very important that governments anticipate this.”
Failure to do so could have dangerous consequences for the climate, regional development and the very communities whose lives revolve around the material. “It’s still possible to avoid a crisis,” Peduzzi said, but “we need to be much wiser about how we use the sand.”