By Sharon Atieno

With sand being the world’s second most exploited resource after water, countries have been urged to use this resource wisely.

“To achieve sustainable development, we need to drastically change the way we produce, build and consume products, infrastructures and services. Our sand resources are not infinite, and we need to use them wisely,” Pascal Peduzzi, Director of GRID-Geneva at United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said.

The overall programme coordinator for the newly released Sand and Sustainability: 10 strategic recommendations to avert a crisis report noted that “if we can get a grip on how to manage the most extracted solid material in the world, we can avert a crisis and move toward a circular economy.”

On an annual basis, 50 billion tons of sand and gravel are used, this is enough to build a wall 27 metres wide and 27 metres high around planet Earth.

The UNEP report notes that despite sand’s critical role in achieving sustainable development goals and tackling the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss, it is being used faster than it can be naturally replenished, so its responsible management is crucial.

According to the authors solutions exist for moving towards a circular economy for sand, including banning the landfilling of mineral waste and encouraging sand to be reused in public procurement contracts are among the policy measures cited. Crushed rock or recycled construction and demolition material, as well as ‘ore-sand’ from mine tailings are among the viable alternatives to sand that should also be incentivised, the report details.

They add that new institutional and legal structures are needed for sand to be more effectively governed and best practices shared and implemented.

Sand resources must furthermore be mapped, monitored and reported on, the report recommends. Meanwhile, all stakeholders must be involved in decisions related to the management of sand to allow for place-based approaches and avoid one-size-fits-all solutions, the paper stresses.

The report provides the necessary guidance gathered from world experts to switch to improved practices for the resource’s extraction and management.

Extracting sand where it plays an active role, such as rivers, and coastal or marine ecosystems, can lead to erosion, salination of aquifers, loss of protection against storm surges and impacts on biodiversity, which pose a threat to livelihoods through, among other things, water supply, food production, fisheries, or to the tourism industry.

According to the report’s authors, sand must be recognised as a strategic resource, not only as a material for construction, but also for its multiple roles in the environment.

They stress that governments, industries and consumers should price sand in a way that recognises its true social and environmental value.

The study suggests that roles like protecting against storm surges and impacts from sea level rise which is performed by sand along the coast should be factored into its value.

An international standard on how sand is extracted from the marine environment should also be developed, the report proposes noting that it could bring about dramatic improvements as most marine dredging is done through public tenders open to international companies.

Meanwhile, the report recommends that the extraction of sand from beaches be banned due to its importance for coastal resilience, the environment and the economy.

The report follows a resolution on Mineral resource governance adopted at the fourth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) that called for actions on sustainable sand management. This mandate was confirmed at UNEA-5 in 2022 in the new resolution titled Environmental aspects of minerals and metals management, adopted by all member states.