Will We Witness a Global Fight for Sand?

The extractive industries sector – which broadly encompasses enterprises that are involved in the extraction of raw materials from the earth – is an integral part of the global economy given both the amount of revenue it generates and the number of people whose livelihoods are dependent on it. PricewaterhouseCoopers’s Mine 2019 report found that the world’s 40 largest mining companies (ranked by market capitalization) amassed a total revenue of US$683 billion in the year 2018; a number that was up US$51 billion from the previous year. Given that there are hundreds if not thousands of registered large-scale mining (LSM) companies operating across the world, in addition to over 40.5 million artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) operators as reported by PwC in the same report, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the mining industry in the global economy.

While the dominant discourse on resource extraction has traditionally focused on popular commodities such as precious metals (e.g. gold), base metals (e.g. copper and aluminIUm), gemstones (e.g. diamonds and emeralds), and fossil fuels (e.g. crude oil and natural gas); it has been observed that construction aggregates, particularly mineral sand, are comparatively understudied. This is despite the fact that aggregates “account for the largest volume of solid material extracted globally (Peduzzi 2014)”. Moreover, although sand seems like a ubiquitous substance, the type of sand that is commercially viable, i.e. that can be used in the construction industry (which is by far the preeminent consumer of sand) is increasingly becoming a rare and contentious resource.

In order for sand to be brought to the fore of the global conservation agenda, it will be important to identify and highlight some of the key parallels that exist between it and other resources that have been able to garner and sustain global attention e.g. petroleum.  Like petroleum, sand is a vital resource that warrants global attention given (1) the current consumption trajectories (that are pointing to depletion) and (2) the unprecedented disruption to the global economy that would result from the exhaustion of accessible sands. Like petroleum, areas with sand resources have also become theatres of conflict and contestation, as is the case in India with the so-called “sand mafia”.

Given that the “global share of African urban residents is projected to grow from 11.3 percent in 2010 to 20.2 percent by 2050 (Saghir and Santoro 2018)”, it is within reason to expect a sharp increase in cement consumption from African countries in the next few years, much like we have witnessed during India and China’s ongoing construction boom. When this happens, there might well be an actual, “Global War for Sand“.


By Adil Nyambasha


Works Referenced.

  1. PwC. “REPORT: Global Mine 2019 – Resourcing the Future”. Melbourne, Australia, 2019
  2. Peduzzi, Pascal. “Sand, rarer than one thinks. Environmental Development”, 2014, vol. 11, p. 208-218
  3. Saghir, Jamal and Jena Santoro. “Urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa: Meeting Challenges by Bridging Stakeholders”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 7 (2018).

Author: GEN