As China wrestles for influence in Asia, an unusual struggle is quietly unfolding in the South China Sea: a battle for sand.
For years, Beijing has steadily deployed thousands of Chinese dredging ships, colossal vessels that can hoover up thousands of tons of sand. Their mission is clear: Ramp up the pressure, and bring back sand, boatloads of it. From the shores of Taiwan to the coast of the Philippines, China has hauled enough material to expand its territory and manufacture islands in contested waters.
Mobilizing dredgers is part of Beijing's "pernicious ongoing effort to use coercion without violence," said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "This is one of many tools in their toolbox."
For a commodity that appears to be available in infinite supply, sand may seem like a curious geopolitical objective. But the resource is more vital—and usable quantities are more limited—than one might think. Essential for everything from concrete to glass, modern civilizations are forged with sand, and China's demand has only skyrocketed as it pursues its ambitious development plans.
"Our society is literally built on sand," said Pascal Peduzzi, the director of GRID-Geneva at the United Nations Environment Program. "We are totally dependent on this material."
This dependence has been costly. While countries feed their appetites for sand, soaring extraction has come at an alarming price: vanishing islands, shrinking rivers, collapsing ecosystems, and the rise of powerful sand mafias. For many people, the worst may be yet to come. Since sand shields inland regions from flooding, overmining endangers coastal communities, a threat that will only grow as climate change drives rising sea levels. But even with these risks, governments still don't know exactly how much sand is being mined—or even realize that a crisis is looming.
"It's really putting lives in danger," said Kiran Pereira, the author of Sand Stories. "We're kind of eating away at our own defenses."
When the Romans built the Pantheon, they used richly colored volcanic sand that they drew from the ash flow of a nearby volcano. After blending the red and black granules with limestone, they found that they could produce a sturdy mortar, one that has allowed the ancient temple to survive thousands of years.
Centuries later, modern civilizations still revolve around sand. All countries need the resource, as mixing it with cement and crushed rock produces the concrete necessary for construction, while adding heat and chemical treatments transforms it into glass. Today, sand is crucial to the development of skyscrapers, highways, and even smartphone screens.
"Sand is really the key ingredient for our modern society," said Mette Bendixen, an assistant professor at McGill University.
As countries promote massive infrastructure booms, demand for the resource has been explosive. Sand is the world's most extracted resource after water, accounting for the vast majority—nearly 85 percent—of global mining operations. "We've seen exponential growth in sand use in the last 20 to 30 years," said Oli Brown, an associate fellow at Chatham House.
The bulk of this demand comes from China, which in a period of just three years has used more cement than the United States used during the entire 20th century. By plundering national rivers and lakes, and now encroaching on its neighbors' waters, Beijing has extracted the billions of tons of sand necessary to construct its sprawling cities and build new territory.
Sand may be abundant, but not all types are fit for construction. Neither ocean nor desert sand can be used for concrete. Wind-swept desert grains are too smooth, while salt-riddled marine sand is better suited for land reclamation.
The most optimal sand is drawn from rivers, with its angular water-eroded edges that bind well with cement. Not all countries are equipped with sufficient supply, and governments desperate for more sand must pay for it. Singapore, for instance, shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars to import more than 500 million tons from its neighbors until they banned the trade.
Mining tends to evoke images of greedy corporations rolling in wealth, but many miners live a harsher reality. In India, some miners risk drowning to make ends meet, diving to hazardous depths to scoop sand into their iron buckets. In Kenya, others painstakingly excavate sand with shovels, grueling work that leaves them vulnerable to collapsing rock walls. Pay is scant, and mining can be fatal. People have died in the quarries.
Many sand miners are "just on the edge of survival," said Peduzzi. "They've got no other option."
In other places, illegal sand mining has turned into a highly lucrative business that has fueled illicit networks. Sand is in a "blind spot," said Pereira. "It's an important resource, and yet nobody's keeping track of how much is being extracted." She added, "That kind of creates an environment where corruption can flourish."
Take India, where parts of the industry are now dominated by the sand mafia, a powerful and elite network of individuals that can include politicians and wealthy businesspeople. Corruption can be entrenched, and the resource's high profit margins are often alluring but also dangerous.
"They're powerful people, politically well-connected people, who can control the sand trade in a wide number of regions," said Pereira. "They're quite territorial, so they can get pretty aggressive if somebody infringes into their territory. They can be quite ruthless."
Run-ins with the sand mafia can be death sentences. In the past two years, nearly 200 people have reportedly been killed in relation to illegal sand mining operations in India. People who challenge the sand mafia "get attacked, they get murdered, they get transferred away from their jobs," said Sumaira Abdulali, the founder of the Awaaz Foundation, an Indian nongovernmental organization.
"People are afraid to speak up," she added. "The threat is very real."
Even as rivers are stripped and islands submerge, nobody knows exactly how much sand is being mined. Since regulations are fragmented and many miners operate informally, global monitoring is virtually nonexistent. In 2019, the United Nations had to rely on cement production data to scrounge up a rough annual estimate of sand use at 40 billion tons.
It's a worryingly rapid pace of extraction that could have catastrophic impacts. The current scale of mining is "unprecedented," said Pereira. "It's not something that nature can cope with. It can lock in changes that are quite drastic."
Some of this damage has already been locked in. After many years of sand mining operations, at least two dozen Indonesian islands have vanished. On the other side of the South China Sea, the depletion of the vast Mekong River in Vietnam has strained ecosystems and destroyed the riverbank. And in Mozambique, once-lush beaches have been fully stripped, leaving the country more vulnerable to severe flooding.
This degradation is especially harmful for local communities, which are often on the frontlines of changing climates. In Vietnam, a half-mile area of homes and roads plummeted into the Van Nao River after its riverbank, weakened by years of dredging, finally collapsed. Farming communities are often robbed of territory and livelihoods. In Myanmar, many farmers have lost acres of fertile land to erosion exacerbated by sand mining.
As sea levels rise, these impacts could become particularly dire. Sand serves as a natural defense against storms and erosion. Without it, coastal communities are at greater risk of flooding and the damaging impact of storms. And with significant amounts of the global population living in coastal areas, the stakes are high, said Arpita Bisht, a researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam. In the United States, nearly 40 percent of people reside in coastal regions; around the world, eight of the 10 largest cities are coastal.
"We think of sand as something that's everywhere, but we're realizing now that we're taking so much sand that it really isn't sustainable," said Bendixen.
These tensions will only come into sharper focus as more countries pivot to construction and infrastructure development to accommodate swelling populations. "Population growth, rural migration, and catching up on development are three drivers that are going to tremendously place exponential pressure on sand resources," said Peduzzi. "It's very important for governments to anticipate this."
Failing to do so could have dangerous consequences for the climate, regional development, and the very communities whose lives revolve around the material. "It's still possible to avert a crisis," said Peduzzi, but "we have to be much wiser on how we are using sand."
Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.