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Worldwide problem : The raw material sand is becoming increasingly scarce

The Burj Khalifa shines in Dubai's desert sun. The 828-meter tower has been the tallest building on the planet since it was inaugurated eight years ago. But that's not the only superlative, as a gigantic 330,000 cubic meters of concrete were used for the skyscraper. Concrete, on the other hand, consists mainly of sand. Close by, construction cranes are stretching their necks towards the sky again to pound new record towers out of the ground.

Construction is taking place not only in the United Arab Emirates, but all over the world. The demand for sand and gravel has risen so dramatically that experts are now sounding the alarm - and the old adage “like sand on the sea” could soon become obsolete.

In the truest sense of the word it happened in Jamaica, where in 2008 the 400 meter long beach of Coral Spring disappeared without a trace. The perpetrators transported a total of 500 white powdery truck loads unnoticed. They were never caught, the investigation remained inconclusive. At the time, the media speculated that the sand was either used to fill another beach or was used in the construction industry. There is no doubt that the robbery was a lucrative business - the resource is as coveted as gold.

Sand as the basis of modern society

"Sand is the basis of our modern society," says Aurora Torres, scientist at the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv). Her research results on the effects of sand extraction on ecosystems were published in the magazine "Science" last year.

Torres believes most people are unaware of what she calls "impending tragedy." "Citizens hardly pay any attention to the issue, but in recent years it has increasingly attracted the attention of international organizations."

The life of mankind is literally built on sand, says the expert. In the meantime, the quartz grains have mutated into the world's most consumed natural raw material, right after water. Because sand is not only found in houses, but in pretty much everything, from glass to asphalt to cosmetics, toothpaste, microchips, smartphone screens, cars and airplanes. The silicon dioxide (SiO2) obtained from sand is also used in the wine industry and many foods.

50 billion tons of sand consumption per year

"Sand is the megastar of our industrial and electronic age," says an article by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The global demand far exceeds what is met by weathering. “The amount of sand that is needed has tripled in the past 20 years,” calculates Pascal Peduzzi from the UN Environment Program (UNEP). He has been warning of the consequences for a long time and in 2014 wrote the UN report “Sand, scarcer than you think”. "We estimate current consumption at 50 billion tons per year - that's 18 kilograms a day for every inhabitant of the world."

Of course, not all constructions devour mountains of sand like the record buildings in the Emirates, but it is estimated that 200 tons are needed even for a single-family home. With the annual consumption of the construction sector alone, “you could build a 27 meter high and 27 meter wide wall around the equator,” says Peduzzi.

One would think that there is enough of the coveted raw material lying around in the deserts of the world. The problem: desert sand is not suitable for the production of concrete. The grains are sanded so smoothly and round by the wind that they can hardly get caught and do not stick. That is why all the sand in the surrounding desert is of no use to the sheikhs when they commission their ambitious mega-projects in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. For the Burj Khalifa, for example, huge quantities of the raw material had to be imported from far away Australia.

Huge dredgers are used to extract sand, which remove ton by ton from the seabed, but also from lakes or rivers. The consequences for the sensitive ecosystems are often devastating. River beds are sinking, coasts are being eroded, fauna in the oceans is being destroyed, entire islands are disappearing. Protective mechanisms that actually hold off storms and tsunamis are overridden.

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Singapore largest sand importer in the world

Indonesia, for example, is losing more and more of its territory due to unrestrained sand mining, wrote the renowned Spanish newspaper "El Pais" recently. More than two dozen islands in the archipelago, which is popular with holidaymakers from all over the world, have already been completely lost. But Europe is also affected: "The beaches of the Canary Islands, for example, survive these days thanks to sand imports from the Western Sahara."

By far the largest exporter of the resource is the USA, according to statistics, while the largest importer is Singapore, famous for its glittering shopping malls and mega-buildings. After all, Germany ranks eighth on the list of importing countries.

Many countries, especially in Southeast Asia, have banned the export of sand. However, the raw material is still being traded - just illegally. The so-called "sand mafia" is operating particularly successfully in India, explains Aurora Torres. "There it is considered to be one of the most violent and impenetrable groups of organized crime."

Experts are now working on the development of alternatives. Building material recycling and research into making desert sand usable for building are considered to be very promising. But the problem is complex, complex and relatively new. “Sand is a very special material that has always been in abundance and has been extremely cheap,” says Torres. That has changed. "So far nobody has found a solution that could satisfy the huge hunger for sand." (dpa)

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