In our recent history, wars have been fought over land and access to oil. Some geopolitical pundits predict that future wars will be fought over water, a commodity necessary to the survival of all species, and a commodity that we take for granted, sand. I was inspired, in part, to write my poem, “Shan-Shui: Rivers-and-Mountains,” by Denis Delestrac’s excellent documentary film, Sand Wars. In it, he presents a startling and shocking picture of what we have done to our rivers, streams, beaches, and ocean floors. All to support the increasing, seemingly endless lust for poured concrete construction. You need sand, you see, to make concrete. It takes 20 tons of sand to build a house; 3,000 tons to build a hospital; each kilometer of highway (concrete or asphalt) requires 30,000 tons. 15 billion tons of sand per year are consumed through construction alone. And we also need sand for glass, optical fiber, cell phone components and computer chips.
Where does sand come from? Mountains. Grains of sand broken down from mountain rock and melting ice travel down streams and rivers to end up on beaches and on the ocean floor. Delestrac’s film points out that it takes “thousands even millions of years for a grain of sand to reach the sea.” That was the way it used to work, for eons. But not any more. Rivers all over the world have been dammed up to where, in China, no sand reaches the shore. In the USA, one dam a day has been built since 1776. Sand used to lay on the surface back in the day—the old sand and gravel pit. But these have all been dug up and used. Not only construction, but the tourist industries in Miami and all over the world, require beaches for its well-fed vacationing citizens to loll about on. So thousands of million-dollar dredging ships suck up the sand from its thin layer (along with all living creatures) on the ocean floor and pump it onto the disappearing beaches along the world’s shorelines. But that pumped in sand will disappear within a year.
All this furtive, destructive, and useless activity has led to global black markets in illegal sand digging and dredging. In Mumbai they talk of the “sand mafia” that controls the legal and illegal procurement of sand, the use of it in poured-concrete construction, and the laws and zoning regulations that are supposed to control it.
Islands like the Maldives in the Indian Ocean are disappearing at an alarming rate due to the dredging up of sand from the ocean floor. Dubai’s ridiculous man-made-sand islands in the shape of a gigantic palm tree and a map of the world now lay barren and unused after wasting billions of tons of the planet’s sand. China has swallowed up one quarter of the world’s sand to build apartment blocks that sit empty. Sand does not renew itself. Once it is gone, it is gone. And, as the film dramatically points out, if this disastrous trend continues (as is likely) it will soon be gone forever.
If you want to learn about this little known catastrophe in the making so that you can add your voice to an outraged hue and cry and be part of the solution, not part of the problem, watch Sand Wars and tell your friends and neighbors to watch it as well.
Related Poem: Shan-Shui: Rivers-and-Mountains