MSU scientist helps craft solutions in United Nations sand crisis report

Sand is the most exploited natural resource in the world after water, but its use is largely ungoverned, a UN report says

Men digging sand

A new United Nations report called for urgent action to avert a sand crisis – a building in part on work by an MSU research associate who calls for restoring ecosystems and compensate for remaining losses.

Aurora Torres, who in 2017 gained international attention with Michigan State University Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (MSU-CSIS) Director Jianguo “Jack” Liu for “The looming tragedy of the sand commons” in Science, led the report chapter on restoring degraded ecosystems.

Sand is the most exploited natural resource in the world after water, but its use is largely ungoverned, and is being consumed faster than it can be replaced by geological processes the UN Environment Program (UNEP) report says.

Sand is the literal foundation of urban development across the globe, a key ingredient of concrete, asphalt, glass, and electronics. It is cheap and easily extracted. Scientists say that easy access has bred a careless understanding of the true global costs of sand mining and consumption.

Global consumption has tripled over two decades to reach 50 billion tons of sand a gravel a year, the UN report said. This is enough to make a wall of about 88 feet high and 88 feet wide, around planet Earth, every year. The vast amounts of unfettered extraction harming rivers and coastlines and even wiping out small islands.

“We encourage policy makers, industry, and other stakeholders to adopt actions to avoid and minimize risks to biodiversity and ecosystem services, restore ecosystems, and compensate for remaining losses,” said Torres, an MSU-CSIS research associate.  “Along with that, efforts must be taken to advance the evidence base around the mining impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services, and the effectiveness of mitigation and restoration efforts, and to ensure the use of science-based evaluation and monitoring as the basis for impact assessment, planning for mitigation, and compensation.”

Among the report’s other recommendations were banning beach extraction and creating an international standard for marine dredging to protect ocean biodiversity. It also called for reusing sand from recycled materials like concrete.

“Sand and overall aggregates play a role in both the natural and the built environment, maintaining biodiversity and providing a variety of ecosystem services that meet societal needs,” Torres said. “Extracting sand can destroy and degrade ecosystems and damage people. Ignoring these consequences comes at a high cost.”

Torres also is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellow at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. 

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