The Sunday Magazine

The world is starting to run out of sand

One of our most abundant resources is an essential ingredient in concrete, glass and silicon. And as the world's population booms and urbanizes, competition for sand has grown deadly. Journalist Vince Beiser takes us inside the global black market in sand.
Chinese laborers extract sand from dirt along the river bank March 19, 2006 on the outskirts of Beijing, China. The sand that they mine will be used to build new houses. (Guang Niu/Getty Images)

We have become accustomed to the idea that we may, someday, run out of oil. The world's great forests are being stripped away. Underwater aquifers, a vital source of water for millions, are being depleted at an alarming rate. 

But very few of us have ever imagined that we are also in danger of running out of sand. 

Sand is easy to ignore. It is, after all, one of the most abundant resources on the planet. But when you look at what sand becomes — concrete, glass, and silicon — you begin to realize that we are living in a world made out of sand...a world that would look very different if we were ever to run out. 

According to award-winning journalist Vince Beiser, that is exactly what is starting to happen. 

Sand is the thing that our cities are made out of... Every concrete building that you see is basically just a huge pile of sand glued together with cement. All the roads that connect all those buildings — also made of sand. All the windows in those buildings are made from sand. The silicon that powers your computers, your cell phones, the chips in your electronics, that's also from sand. So basically, without sand, we have no modern civilization.- Vince Beiser

Because the sand found in deserts often isn't suitable for making concrete, miners strip sand from riverbeds and beaches. Usable sand is a finite resource.

Beiser says rapid urbanization all around the world is causing us to consume concrete at an unprecedented rate. That means sand miners are digging deeper and deeper, disrupting sensitive ecosystems, and in some rare cases, swallowing up entire islands. 

This picture taken on May 31, 2016 shows workers gathering pebbles at a sand excavation site along the Mekong River in Vientiane. Grain by grain, truckload by truckload, Laos' section of the Mekong river is being dredged of sand to make cement — a commodity being devoured by a Chinese-led building boom in the capital. But the hollowing out of the riverbed is also damaging a vital waterway that feeds hundreds of thousands of fishermen and farmers in the poverty-stricken nation. (Photo credit should read LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images)

The growing demand for sand has also created a deadly black market, sometimes controlled by "sand mafias." In India and Indonesia, sand mafias are believed to have killed hundreds of people in the last few years alone, including police officers and journalists. 

Beiser's reporting on sand is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and he is currently at work on a book about the deadly global war for sand for Penguin Random House. 

Click the button above to hear Michael's interview with Vince Beiser.