Skyrocketing demand, combined with unfettered mining to meet it, is creating the perfect recipe for sand shortages. Plentiful evidence strongly suggests that sand is becoming increasingly scarce in many regions. For example, in Vietnam domestic demand for sand exceeds the country’s total reserves. While scientists are making a great effort to quantify how infrastructure systems such as roads and buildings affect the habitats that surround them, the impacts of extracting construction minerals such as sand and gravel to build those structures have been overlooked.
While scientists are making a great effort to quantify how infrastructure systems such as roads and buildings affect the habitats that surround them, the impacts of extracting construction minerals such as sand and gravel to build those structures have been overlooked. Extraction rates were highest in the Asia-Pacific region, followed by Europe and North America. In the United States alone, production and use of construction sand and gravel was valued at US$8.9 billion in 2016, and production has increased by 24 percent in the past five years. Sand traditionally has been a local product. However, regional shortages and sand mining bans in some countries are turning it into a globalized commodity. Its international trade value has skyrocketed, increasing almost sixfold in the last 25 years. Today organized crime groups in India, Italy and elsewhere conduct illegal trade in soil and sand. Singapore’s high-volume sand imports have drawn it into disputes with Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia.
Excessive mining on river beds to meet the increasing demand for sand from the construction industry has led to severe ecological imbalance. The fact that rivers are running dry is being used as a reason to mine them for sand. The bigger issue is mining done under the guise of river restoration, say experts. More than rivers, wetlands are being exploited for sand mining across the globe.
The sand available now is coarse and contains a high percentage of silt and clay. This retains moisture and reduces the strength of the concrete. Mica, coal, fossils, and other organic impurities also make the sand useless for concrete work. The acute shortage and high price for river sand has also led to adulteration using sea sand, which has raised serious concern among builders.
Bihar in crisis
A man-made sand crisis in Bihar over the past five months has angered all stakeholders: Thousands of labourers, skilled workers, traders dealing in bricks, cement and iron rods – as also contractors in the construction and infrastructure sector and builders.
Even truck and tractor owners, who are mainly engaged in transportation of sand, are unhappy with the crisis badly hitting private and public construction, including major infrastructure projects worth thousands of crores of rupees.
It was evident recently in Bhojpur district, about 60 km from Patna, when thousands of labourers, sand miners, traders and contractors associated with the construction industry staged protests that disrupted trains to enforce a shutdown called against the state government’s sand mining policy.
Similar small protests were also reported from Vaishali and Saran districts in 2017.Private construction and public infrastructure projects in the state have been badly hit by sand shortage after the state banned sand mining along the riverbeds. It also affected the construction of houses for the poor under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna Gramin (PMAY-G).
“Sand scarcity has hit the construction work of the PMAY-G. It is a difficult challenge to complete 400,000 houses for the rural poor by the end of March,” said Arvind Choudhary, Principal Secretary, Rural Development Department.
Work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has also suffered and this has a direct bearing on the employment of the rural poor.
Sand is now a costly item in Bihar. It is selling at a premium – from ` 6,000 to ` 8,000 for 100 cubic feet. Ahead of the crisis, sand was available in the market at ` 2,500 to ` 3,000 for 100 cft.
“Costly sand has raised the cost of construction and most private and public construction has slowed down like never before,” said Sahid Malik, a contractor.
A builder said the per tractor cost of sand has touched an all-time high.
“The sand crisis has affected over 1,000 under-construction apartments in and around Patna, not to talk about thousands of houses. Construction activities are badly hit as big building construction and infrastructure projects have been stalled for the last four months,” said the builder, on condition of anonymity.
According to officials, the sand crisis began after the government put restrictions on sand mining through the Bihar Minor Mineral Rules, 2017.
Thousands of daily wagers and semi-skilled workers have been rendered jobless after the state government initiated large-scale action in July against rampant illegal sand mining and imposed restrictions.
Tamil Nadu is huge crisis
With less than one-third of the sand quarries in the State operational now, Tamil Nadu is facing a crisis that has crippled its infrastructure projects. Builders, developers and sand lorry owners whom Express spoke to claimed that about 30-40 per cent of construction activity had been hit by the crisis, as only 10 of the 38 sand quarries in the State are functional.
A senior Public Works Department official admitted that less than 15 quarries were operational now, and explained that the crisis was brought about by the lapse of many sand quarry leases.“These licences have to be renewed. Besides, we require clearance from the State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) to start operating the newly identified quarries. We have not been able to get it so far as SEIAA does not have a chairman,” said the PWD source. However, the official refused to divulge information on how many new quarries have been identified.
According to Tamil Nadu Sand Lorry Owners Association president R Muniratham, Chennai used to get 10,000 truckloads of sand a day, which has now come down to around 2,000.
This shortage has jacked up sand prices from ` 20,000 to ` 25,000 per truckload, said industry sources. T Chitty Babu, national chairman (Best Practices) of the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India (Credai) and chairman and managing director of Akshaya Homes, told Express that many government and private infrastructure projects had been hit by this steep rise in sand prices.
Stressing the need for a transparent approach to the tendering process to fix a reasonable price for sand, he also sought to fix the price of artificial sand that keeps fluctuating depending on the availability of natural sand.
Former president of Credai, Chennai chapter, Ajit Chordia said the rise in prices of sand had come at a time when the real estate market was slowly recovering.
If the crisis is not resolved soon, then other alternatives like duty-free import of sand from Cambodia should be considered by the State government.
There were times when the industry body had resorted to import of sand and cement when shortage led to unsustainable price hike.
Several projects will be delayed, as a result of which project expenditure could appreciate, he warned, seeking efforts to resolve the issue soon.
Former national president of the Builders’ Association of India R Radhakrishnan blamed it on the State government for failing to initiate immediate action to address the problem. He said that 30 to 40 per cent of constructions projects had already been affected by the crisis.
With only 10 of the State’s 38 sand quarries functional, over 40% construction activity has been hit. Nidhi Adlakha reports. It has affected all building projects, including government ones like the Metro Rail. With only 10 of its 38 sand quarries functional, over 30-40% of construction activity has been hit across the State. The sand shortage and its volatile price escalation is a major cause for concern in the real estate and infrastructure sectors.
Experts say the crisis is primarily due to the lapse in many sand quarry leases and the increased smuggling of sand to neighbouring States. According to the Tamil Nadu Public Works Department (PWD), 5,500-6,000 truckloads of 200 cu. ft. of sand each are mined each day, but the real figure is estimated at around 55,000 truckloads of 400 cu. ft. each per day. A. Shankar, National Director, JLL, says this is why the State has banned illegal mining in many quarries, which has also made obtaining and renewing permits/ licences for new or existing quarries difficult.
Chennai, Kanchipuram, and Tiruvallur districts are the worst hit. These areas used to receive 10,000 truckloads of sand a day and are receiving only 2,000 since the last two-and-a-half months. R. Muniratham, who has been the Tamil Nadu Sand Lorry Owners Association’s President since 1995, says obtaining clearances for newly identified quarries from the State Environmental Impact
Assessment Authority (SEIAA) is the need of the hour. “The SEIAA’s Chairman retired last year and his position hasn’t been filled. Only once the Chairman issues a permit, the district collector verifies and approves a clearance.” Muniratham has written to the CM and to the PWD, but no action has been taken yet.
Impact on developers
At present, only 30% of Chennai’s sand demand is being catered to and there is a need for a further 10,000 truckloads. All major infrastructure projects have taken a beating due to the escalation in sand prices, says T. Chitty Babu, CREDAI Chairman (Best Practices). “This crisis has arrived at a time when the market was recovering. Even major government projects like the Metro Rail and other roadworks have been hit.”
With sand coming in only from Trichy, Cuddalore and Villipuram, costs have escalated, impacting developers and individual builders. In the past month alone, sand prices almost doubled, rising from ` 30-40 per cu. ft to ` 70-80 per cu. ft. “The crisis is severely affecting ongoing projects and we urge the government to look into the matter. Many small-scale developers have stopped projects temporarily as costs have shot up,” says S. Ramachandran, VP Projects, Doshi Housing.
“We are facing major losses – we have 75,000 sand lorries in the State and they are rarely required today,” adds Muniratham.
How the world is dealing with the global sand shortage
Desert sand is too smooth, and so cannot be used for most commercial purposes. In any case, the proximity of sand to construction sites is generally important too: because sand is relatively cheap, it tends to be uneconomical to transport across long distances. Unless there are deep pockets involved: Singapore and Qatar are big importers, per citizen. Australian sand was transported to a faraway desert to build Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower. Most countries also have rules in place about where, and how much, sand can be mined.
Excessive mining on river beds to meet the increasing demand for sand from the construction industry has led to severe ecological imbalance. The fact that rivers are running dry is being used as a reason to mine them for sand. The bigger issue is mining done under the guise of river restoration, say experts. More than rivers, wetlands are being exploited for sand mining across Tamil Nadu. Rivers in the public eye are better protected, but rivers such as the Cheyyar, the Vegavathy, and smaller streams are being destroyed. The damming of rivers during the past century has dramatically impeded this natural process, and so roughly half of the estimated 40 billion metric tons of sand and gravel extracted every year for the construction industry, glass manufacturing, and other uses-such as land reclamation and oil exploration-will never be replenished. The seemingly endless supply of sand in the Mojave and Sahara deserts just won’t cut it. Desert sand granules have been rounded by wind over time and no longer bind together, an essential characteristic of sand used in construction.
As scientists wake up to this new problem, it is becoming clear that sand scarcity is an issue with significant socio political, economic and environmental implications.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimated that in 2012 the world used nearly 30 billion tons of these materials just to make concrete – enough to construct a wall 27m high by 27m wide around the equator.The trade value of sand has increased by almost six fold in the last 25 years. In the US alone, where sand production has increased by 24 per cent in the past five years, the sand industry is worth nearly $9bn (£6.7bn).Though sand extraction rates are high across Europe and North America, the biggest consumers of sand are fast-growing Asian nations. “Where it tends to happen is India, China, places where you have rapid and large amounts of construction,” says Dr John Orr, an engineer and expert in concrete structures at the University of Cambridge. Dubai now imports sand from Australia, because it has exhausted its marine sand suppl. BBC says UAE imported $456m worth of sand, stone and gravel in 2014. Some cities use sand to expand their landmass: Singapore holds the world record in that category. The island city-state is 20 percent bigger than it was 40 years ago, thanks to sand imported from Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Singapore has imported 517 million metric tons of sand in the past 20 years, according to UNEP. Dubai, on the other hand, exhausted its marine sand resources pouring 385 million metric tons to create an artificial set of islands called the Palm Jumeirah between 2001 and 2006. The city has since been relying on Australia to satisfy its seemingly insatiable demand for sand for other massive construction projects.
Singapore, meanwhile, has become by far the world’s largest importer of sand, adding 130 square kilometres to its land area over a 40 year period. The island nation has achieved this by dumping millions of tons of sand into the ocean. As these countries expand, constructing endless roads and megacities, their demand for sand continues to grow. So enormous is China’s appetite for construction, in fact, that between 2011 and 2013 it used more concrete than the US got through in the entire 20th century. This means that, at national and local levels at least, these regions are facing a genuine sand shortage. According to Pham Van Bac, director of Vietnam’s Department of Construction Materials, the country may well run out of sand by 2020.
Sand extraction problem
Sand extraction in Kenya has been linked with damage to coral reefs, while in India it threatens critically endangered crocodiles and in Indonesia islands have literally vanished due to excessive mining. Sand extraction causes coastal erosion, destroys ecosystems, creates environments that facilitate disease transmission, and even sows the seeds for natural disasters. Sand’s common-pool status has made it difficult to monitor or control its extraction. Nevertheless, with such potentially catastrophic outcomes, some nations are under pressure to regulate their sand mining.
The way forward: Substitutes
In the November of 2017, The Builders’ Association of India (BAI) called upon the State government to encourage the import of river sand from Southeast Asian countries, even as a petition on the seizure of imported river sand is pending with the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court. Pointing out that it has become virtually impossible for those in the construction industry to get river sand in necessary quantity in Tamil Nadu, S. Ramaprabhu, secretary, southern centre – BAI, said that the option of import has become imperative. While the Karnataka and Kerala governments have banned the quarrying of river sand, Andhra Pradesh is making the mineral available free of cost only for local firms with a complete restriction on inter-State movement of the river sand.“Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Philippines, and Cambodia are willing to sell us river sand at a rate which we find, will be cheaper than the prevailing rate of domestic sand. As for Malaysia’s river sand, the cost will be ?90 or ?100 per cubic feet (cft) whereas the rate of the domestic sand is ?120/cft. A minimum of ?20 per cft can be saved,” Mr. Ramaprabhu says, adding that the demand for river sand still persists due to lack of popular acceptance for manufactured sand (M-sand).
In Mumbai, the construction industry is using river sand from the Philippines and as for Cambodia, one has to ascertain the quality parameters of the mineral before ordering it, he adds.
The most trusted alternative to sand is Manufactured sand (also known as M-sand). This technology helps alleviate the risks associated with natural sand procurement. By de-risking the construction sector from heavy price volatility, dependence on illegal sand supply – manufactured sand provides uninterrupted supply and consistent quality what no institution related to the natural and river sand regulations has been able to deliver. Manufactured sand as a concept has many manifestations in the current Indian market. Unwashed quarry dust, crusher dust is being passed by that name. To take care of the excessive ultrafines fines/silt in the so-called Sand, cleaning system has been introduced. Manufactured sand has balanced physical and chemical properties that can withstand any aggressive environmental and climatic conditions as it has enhanced durability, greater strength and overall economy. Usage of manufactured sand can overcome the defects occurring in concrete such as honeycombing, segregation, voids, capillary etc. The superior shape, proper gradation of fines, smooth surface texture and consistency in production parameter of chemically stable sands provides greater durability and higher strength to concrete by overcoming deficiencies like segregation, bleeding, honeycombing, voids and capillary.
Mud can also be used for reclamation, straw and wood to build houses, and crushed rock to make concrete. Asphalt and concrete can be recycled. Production processes will shift towards these alternatives as the price of sand rises. In some rich countries that shift is already under way, encouraged by government policy. According to Britain’s Mineral Products Association, 28% of building materials used in Britain in 2014 had been recycled. European plans to recycle 75% of glass by 2025 should lower demand for industrial sand. Singapore plans to rely on Dutch expertise for its next reclamation project. Using a system of dykes and pumps, this will be less dependent on sand.
River sand shortage has delayed over 10,000 crore worth of construction projects, blocked new project launches and caused over five lakh job losses. Also, in the last six months, sand price has increased from ?35 per cubic feet to ?135 resulting in increase in construction cost. Suresh Krishn, President of the Chennai chapter of the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Associations of India (CREDAI), said the demand for sand in Tamil Nadu is 10 million Cubic Feet (CFT) per day. Currently only 5 million CFT of sand, through a combination of M-sand and river sand, are available for construction purposes. The solution, developers say, is regularisation of river sand mining and viable alternatives.
As the world’s population continues to grow, so will the need for housing, office towers, factories, roads, and shopping malls. And given that most of what we build today is made of glass and concrete, sand is a fundamental resource for our economic development. Going for the substitutes seems to be the best option for the time being.
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