Macau Matters | Sand Stories

Richard Whitfield

I love the serendipity of the Internet where it is so easy to find information that brings out something interesting that makes you rethink your understanding of how the world works. For me, is just such a place – who would ever think that there are interesting things to say about sand, but there are!
Sand is a major industrial resource and we are quickly running out of easily extractable, useful sand. So much so, that illegal sand mining is a multi-billion dollar business and is 3rd in rankings of the main global crimes, behind piracy/counterfeiting and drug dealing and ahead of human trafficking and illegal logging. There are “sand mafias” in many countries and many, many people have been murdered or displaced because of sand. Who says that truth is not stranger than fiction?
By volume, sand is the major component in concrete, which is the world’s most widely used construction material. It is also used as the foundation base for buildings, roads and other infrastructure. Additionally, sand is the main raw component in glass, another very widely used material for buildings and containers. And, sand is the main raw material in the silicon wafers that are the base of all modern electronics – by volume, every computer chip is mostly sand. Annual demand for sand, the single most extracted material on the planet, is running at an estimated 40 to 50 billion tonnes globally – triple the level of just 20 years ago.
Sand is formed by the weathering of rocks over geological time periods – it takes many thousands of years for wind and rain to erode mountains and for rivers to flush the resulting sand down to the seas. There are many different kinds of rocks, and thus many different kinds of sand. Unfortunately, not all sands are made equal. Saharan (and other) desert sand, for example, is very fine grained and smooth and so is not good in concrete or other construction situations. We are rapidly running out of industrially useful sands that are easily accessible and mine-able. And geology is not going to replenish these deposits any time soon.
Indiscriminant, and often illegal, sand mining is exacerbating many global problems. It is destroying fragile natural land and aquatic environments and killing off flora and fauna and their breeding grounds thus reducing bio-diversity. In many cases this also destroys the livelihoods of farmers and fisher-people and entire local communities. It is also contributing to coastal and river erosion and reduces the resilience of communities in the face of natural disasters. Sand is also a natural water filter and absorbent so that removing sand from the environment reduces local water quality and the storage capacity of aquifers.
Just when you thought you had heard the worst about how humanity is committing global suicide by destroying the ecosystems that sustain its long term survival, sand is another one to add to the list along with land, sea and air pollution, drug resistant bacteria, global warming, bad diet and sedentary living – the list goes on and gets longer every day.
World leaders and others have been putting their collective heads in the sand (pun intended!) for far too long and we need to wake up and actually tackle these problems. To me, the starting point is wealthy communities that have the expertise and resources to start creating a sustainable world and showing everybody else the way forward. This means Macau has a significant role to play – we have the money, we have the expertise and we have the tourists who can spread the word after visiting us. If only we had local leaders with the vision and will to ensure that we make a difference.

Categories Opinion