“Will sand become our new battleground?” asked a headline in the Nelson Mail a couple of weeks ago. The article went on to highlight the value of sand as a global commodity and an essential element of modern infrastructure and society. In Rodney, sand mining has already been a contested issue, with applications for sand mining in the Mangawhai-Pakiri embayment (the recess that forms the bay) going all the way to the High Court.
Scientists, communities and environmentalists close to home and around the world have growing concerns about sand mining, particularly about the destruction of marine habitats and marine life, increasing coastal erosion and coastal hazards, and habitat loss and species threats. Local scarcity in different parts of the world has led to ‘sand mafias’, corruption and extortion. On the North Island’s West Coast, proposed sand mining raises issues about seismic testing, sediment plumes and habitat displacement, with negative impacts on Maui dolphins and blue whales. Sand mining also puts pressure on our roads. Tonnes of sand are transported by trucks speeding through our towns.
Sand is an essential building block of modern life. In various forms, it is found in computer screens, roads, buildings, glass and microchips, making it one of the most important commodities of the 21st century. It’s apparently the stuff we use most of, after water and air. Sand is the building block of civilisation – especially urban civilisation. You’d think that sand was an infinite resource, but only certain types of sand are good for industrial purposes. For example, wind-blown, desert sand is too fine for most uses. Around the world, all the easy sand has already been extracted. Rivers are dredged and dug, forests are excavated to get to the underlying resource. The biggest freshwater lake in China is also home to the biggest sand mine in the world. Twenty Indonesian islands have allegedly been totally excavated for their sand.
The global sand and gravel industry is worth $70 billion and about 40 billion tonnes are extracted every year. In New Zealand, we produce about 30 million tonnes of sand and gravel every year, from harbours, rivers, land and sea. We exported about 4000 tonnes last year, mostly sent to New Caledonia, a big increase on 97 tonnes the year before. Sand is something we have taken for granted – another of the global commodities that we have always assumed was relatively abundant and limitless. But it takes millennia to form, and the scale at which it’s being extracted to build mega-cities, new land masses and highways, as well as the small mundane features of home life, mean there are local impacts, too. Sand mining is antithetical to nature. It requires the total disturbance of an ecosystem. The sand battleground is one where massive population growth, urbanisation and development are in cahoots with extraction, pitted against sustainability, community values, environmental integrity and resilience.