How can we avert a global sand crisis?

Published: 26 April 2022

A new report by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) entitled “Sand and sustainability: 10 recommendations to avert a crisis” was launched on 26 April 2022 at the UNEP office in Geneva, Switzerland. Deltares researcher Helena van der Vegt is co-author of this report, contributing to the chapter on restoration of ecosystem services as well as other topics in the report.

Sand crisis? What crisis?

Globally, sand is the second most used material, second only to water.  We use it to build houses, hospitals, schools and roads, but also to manufacture computer chips and glass.  We use it to protect ourselves against storms and floods along coasts and rivers. Sand is essential to the foundation for the ecosystems we depend on. In fact, sand forms the foundation of many things we do on land. We more than often live on sand, sand is essential for farming, we extract fresh water from aquifers from sandy deposits buried in the subsurface. Similar sandy deposits play a crucial part to produce oil and gas. It is probably fair to say: Without sand, no buildings. Without sand, no roads. Without sand, no fresh groundwater. Without sand, no protection against natural disasters. Demand for sand continues to grow and our dependence on sand increases, while the reserves are being depleted and no new reserves are created. Hence a crisis is in the make.

Simply put: Without sand, no deltas.

Sand is a strategic resource. Since 2014, UNEP has been raising alarm about the way sand is currently treated – as an inexhaustible resource (ref “Sand, rarer than one thinks”). This is simply not the case; sand is abundant but a limited resource. In many places, sand extraction has already led to ecological disasters and riverbank and coastal erosion. The challenges will only increase with the added pressures from accelerating climate change, urbanisation and continuous economic growth. As such, we need to recognize sand as a strategic resource that is critical to the ecosystem and human development.

Sand and Towns – UNEP

How can we prevent a sand crisis?

The latest UNEP report makes 10 recommendations (See table below) to guide informs policy makers, but also other stakeholders, towards sustainable sand stewardship. Helena van der Vegt (researcher, Deltares): “The recommendations in this report are very important building blocks for Deltares’ focus on ensuring that deltas remain habitable under sea level rise, communities are better protected against flooding, water supplies stay resilient and healthy, and the construction and replacement of infrastructure are undertaken in a sustainable way.”

Three important themes emerge from the recommendations: Planning, innovation and sustainable sourcing.

For governments, planning is the key to safeguard sand resources required for economic growth, while still honouring the targets set by international treaties (e.g., Sustainable Development Goals, The Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction). Governments need to answer questions like: “How much sand will be needed?” “When will sand be needed and where?” “How does this differ for different economic or climate scenarios?” Detailed assessment of a countries’ available sand reserves is required to ensure availability. Planning can result in opportunities, for instance extracting sand before building an offshore wind park.

Innovation must be stimulated, and innovative solutions piloted and matured. Deltares are involved in innovations relating to the circular economy[1] and the beneficial use of sediments[2], both to reduce the need for sand, and to find ways of using products that may have previously be thought of as waste. However, circular economy is not only about finding practical uses for waste streams, but effort is also required in the design phase, to enable later re-use or recycling. Examples include using sediments (other than sand) in an innovative way, thereby limiting the need for sand, like projects on Dyke of ripened clay tested in Delta Flume or Marker Wadden: a productive landscape by building with sediment

Complete circularity is most likely unattainable, certainly in the short to medium term. To fulfil the sand demand, sustainable sourcing must be adopted. Policies, limiting impact and safeguarding social equality and ecosystem services should be put in place and enforced.

Towards sand stewardship, together.

Governments and public authorities are ultimately responsible for the policies and legal frameworks to establish sustainable sand management and governance. However, the UNEP report highlights actions for additional stakeholders in the value chain for sand, including civil society, international entities, extraction industry and sand producers, end users and financiers. The importance of sand is increasingly recognised. Sand is already mentioned in the United Nations Environmental assembly (UNEA) 5.2 resolution UNEP/EA5/Res12  “Environmental aspects of minerals and metals management” which states “OP4 Requests the Executive Director, through the Global Resource Information Database (GRID-Geneva) to strengthen scientific, technical and policy knowledge with regard to sand, to support global policies and action regarding its environmentally sound extraction and use.”

Sustainable sand management is something we can only achieve collaboratively. Together with our partners, Deltares is already taking up this challenge in various projects and collaborations.

10 Recommendations to Avert a Crisis

1 Recognise sand as a strategic resource that delivers critical ecosystem services and underpins the construction of vital infrastructure in expanding towns and cities globally.
2 Include place-based perspectives for just sand transitions, ensuring the voices of all impacted people are part of decision-making, agenda-setting and action.
3 Enable a paradigm shift to a regenerative and circular future.
4 Adopt strategic and integrated policy and legal frameworks, in tune with local, national, and regional realities, as well as green and circular pathways to sustainable development.
5 Establish ownership and access to sand resources through mineral rights and consenting.
6 Map, monitor and report sand resources for transparent, science-based and data-driven decision-making.
7 Establish best practices and national standards, and a coherent international framework.
8 Promote resource efficiency & circularity by reducing the use of sand, substituting with viable alternatives and recycling products made of sand when possible.
9 Source responsibly by actively and consciously procuring sand in an ethical, sustainable, and socially conscious way.
10 Restore ecosystems and compensate for remaining losses by advancing knowledge, mainstreaming the mitigation hierarchy, and promoting nature-based solutions.

[1] Circular economy: an economic system in which products and materials are designed in such a way that they can be reused, remanufactured, recycled or recovered and thus maintained in the economy for as long as possible, along with the resources of which they are made and the generation of waste, especially hazardous waste, is avoided or minimised, and GHGs are prevented or reduced (UNEP/EA.1/Res.1)

[2] Beneficial use of sediment: the use of dredged or natural sediment in applications that are beneficial and in harmony to (human and natural) development