The Sand Thieves World's Beaches Become Victims of Construction Boom

Pauliana Valente Pimentel/ DER SPIEGEL


Part 2: It's Not Just Cape Verde

Sand is similar to fossil fuels like natural gas, coal or oil: It takes thousands of years to form -- for rock to be naturally ground down into sand with rivers washing, grinding and breaking up stone on their long journeys to the sea. But the global population is growing, and since the start of the economic booms in Asia and Africa, sand doesn't even make it to the oceans anymore in some places. It often gets fished out before getting there.

The Ganges River stretches for 2,300 kilometers (1,429 miles) across India. It runs from high in the Himalayas down toward Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal. It passes through Indian cities like Kolkata (Calcutta) and Kanpur, which are growing quickly and have voracious appetites for sand. "The only thing that still reaches Bangladesh is a mixture of clay and silt," says geologist Dill. "People even fish for stones."

With laws prohibiting the extraction of sand from rivers in many places, it has become a black market good. Hardly a day passes without Indian newspapers reporting on the dealings of the "sand mafia". "We only hear of the consequences when a textile factory collapses in Bangladesh," Dill says. "People aren't building on sand there anymore," and without sand, the ground isn't stable enough.

Not all types of sand are identical. For microchips, lenses and glass, pure quartz sand -- of the type found in Germany for example -- is required. The construction industry also uses gravel, which by definition has grains measuring between 2 and 63 millimeters (0.07 inches to about 2.5 inches). It is mixed with cement and water to make concrete.

In reality, there is plenty of gravel in the world. It's just not always where construction companies need it most.

A Dearth of Sand in the Desert

One might think that the Arab Peninsula, with its high sand dunes, would have the largest reserves, but desert sand isn't suitable for every purpose. It contains a surfeit of chalk, clay and iron oxide. And while the countries have considerable amounts of marl, quality sand is also necessary to produce cement. Paradoxically, then, the desert region is suffering a shortage of sand.

The Arab Emirates want to continue growing -- both vertically, with their massive skylines, and in area. Construction crews in Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain are all busy erecting the world's tallest residential towers and massive airports. Dubai reclaimed land using 385 million tons of sand for its Palm Island project, which was then followed by a second one. Now work is continuing on another artificial archipelago project called The World. Nearby Saudi Arabia possesses sand reserves, but it has repeatedly restricted supplies to neighboring countries -- forcing construction cranes to come to a grinding halt.

Even Germany, a country with a wealth of sand, imports the natural resource. Officials at the country's Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in Hanover say Germany has enough sand supplies to last for thousands of years. The problem is that the sand on hand isn't always available -- it might be in a conservation area, in forests or located near municipalities. "It's a bit like wind turbines," Dill says, nobody wants a gravel pit in their backyard.

Sand Mining Leaves Scars in Germany

In Germany, too, firms have begun mining sand from the ocean floor. Using dredgers the size of aircraft carriers, they trawl the North and Baltic seas, with gigantic suction heads vacuuming the grains from the sea floor. Nature conservation organizations fear the dredging could disturb the habitat of harbor porpoises and seals and that sustained damage is being done to the ocean floor ecosystem. "Anything that gets sucked in is killed," says Kim Detloff of Germany's Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU).

Klaus Schwarzer of the University of Kiel has conducted diving expeditions at the sites of sand dredging in the Baltic Sea. Off the coast of the island of Rügen in Germany, he discovered deep chutes dating back to East German times that still haven't returned to normal even after decades. "It's astounding how long marine regions take to recover," he says. But in some places where the suction heads left holes behind, they filled in again within half a year. "We need to do a good job of reviewing where and how much we dredge," Schwarzer says.

One of the problems is that the sediment is only a few meters deep in some spots. The northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, for example, has been importing sand from Denmark to spread across its coasts for years because it has run out of its own. Norway also sells sand to Germany. "We can't just keep taking and taking," Klaus Schwarzer says. "At some point we will run out."

Depletion Control Happens Too Late

In the eastern part of Hamburg, one can still see what many places in the area used to look like. There, a small forest gives way to a clearing and your feet begin sinking deep into the sand, as in a desert. The Boberger Dune is Hamburg's last remaining shifting sand dune. All other such deposits in the region were consumed as the city grew.

The same phenomenon can currently be seen on the Canary Islands and in India, Brazil and China -- even on the small Cape Verde islands. But these days, the process goes much faster.

Clementina Furtado leans against a bench in front of the Universidade de Cabo Verde in Praia. Having studied in both Belgium and France, she is part of the new generation in her country, one that is educated, multilingual and cosmopolitan. "By the time we began trying to control the depletion, it was already too late," she says. "We had already taken too much."

The beach in her hometown has long since been depleted. Huge puddles full of garbage stand where the sand once was. Turtles used to live on the beach, but they have long since disappeared. "The crazy thing," says Furtado, "is that sea sand isn't even particularly good."

Before such sand can be used in construction, the salt has to be carefully washed out of it, otherwise it dissolves in water and corrodes the steel reinforcement rods. That explains why, for example, work has been temporarily suspended on China's tallest skyscraper in Shenzhen. The property developers responsible for the construction of 15 buildings purchased cheap sea sand, likely from illegal sources.

"In reality, there is enough sand in the world," says Harald Dill. "We just want to have it cheaply." Researchers are already looking into possible alternatives, including using ground up glass or building structures using different materials entirely. On Cape Verde, they have begun crushing volcanic rock, but that costs more than sand produced by sand miners. "As long as there are people offering sand more cheaply, and then even more cheaply, it won't stop," says Furtado.

Meanwhile, there's only one reason that the Boberger Dune still exists in Hamburg: In 1927, an agreement couldn't be reached on what its sand should cost.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Okot 10/02/2014
1. Cement
Cement made out of sand. How interesting...
peskyvera 10/02/2014
At the rate that mankind is destroying our planet...
John_Banister 10/02/2014
3. Too heavy anyways
Sand is too heavy anyways. Stabilized polystyrene beads in conjunction with PVA fibers and fly ash from power stations is a better way to go.
ben major 10/04/2014
4. Whow!
Let's buy the sahara!
BoMoUAE 10/05/2014
5. Dubai
Dubai and the UAE have more sand than anything. By building the islands and extending the shoreline, they turn this sand into gold. Very smart...
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