"Civilisation is built on sand-literally. It's been a critical component of construction and progress since ancient times. In the 15th century an Italian artisan figured out how to turn it into the transparent glass that made it possible to make the microscopes, telescopes and other technologies that helped drive the Renaissance's scientific revolution. Sand is an essential ingredient in detergents, cosmetics, toothpaste, solar panels, windows, silicon chips and buildings; every concrete structure around the world is basically sand and gravel glued together with cement.
Apart from water and air, humble sand is the natural resource most consumed by human beings. People use more than 36 billion tonnes of sand and gravel every year. But not just any sand will do: desert sand, shaped by wind rather than water, is too round to bind together for construction.
In fact, only sand worn by water is suitable. And the worldwide construction boom of recent years -- all those megacities, from Lagos to Beijing -- is devouring unprecedented quantities. Extracting sand is a £45-billion industry. In Dubai, huge land-reclamation projects and breakneck skyscraper construction have exhausted all nearby sources, so insatiable construction companies now look elsewhere for their supply. Exporters in Australia are actually selling sand to Arabs.................
Sand mining has erased two dozen Indonesian islands since 2005. The stuff of those former islands mostly ended up in Singapore, which needs titanic amounts to continue its programme of artificially adding territory. The city-state has created an extra 129km2 in the past 40 years and is adding more, making it by far the world's largest sand importer. The environmental damage has been so extreme that Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have all restricted or banned exports of sand to Singapore.
As a result, the global black market is booming. Half the sand used for construction in Morocco is estimated to be mined illegally; whole stretches of beach there are disappearing. One of Israel's most notorious gangsters got his start stealing sand from public beaches. Dozens of Malaysian officials were charged in 2010 with accepting bribes and sexual favours in exchange for allowing illegally mined sand to be smuggled into Singapore.
On Indonesia's island of Bali, far inland from the tourist beaches, WIRED visits a sand mine. It looks like Shangri-La after a meteor strike. In the middle of a beautiful valley, surrounded by jungle and rice paddies, is a six-hectare pit of exposed sand and rock. On its floor, men wearing shorts and flip-flops wield sledgehammers and shovels to push sand and gravel into clattering, smoke-belching sorting machines. "Those who have permits to dig for sand have to pay for land restoration," says Nyoman Sadra, a former member of the regional legislature. "But 70 per cent of the sand miners have no permits." Even the companies with permits tend to spread bribes around so they can get away with digging wider or deeper pits.
But nowhere is the struggle for sand more violent than in India. Intense battles among and against sand mafias there have reportedly killed hundreds of people in recent years-with the victims including police officers, government officials and ordinary people such as Paleram Chauhan.
The area around Raipur Khadar used to be mostly agricultural--wheat and vegetables growing in the Yamuna River floodplain. But Delhi, less than an hour north, is encroaching fast. Driving down a new six-lane expressway, you pass construction site after construction site, new buildings sprouting skyward like the opening credits of Game of Thrones made real. Besides the countless generic shopping malls, apartment blocks and office towers, a 2,000-hectare "Sports City", including several stadiums and a Formula 1 racetrack, is under construction.
The building explosion got in gear about a decade ago-and so did the sand mafias. "There was some illegal sand mining before," says Dushyant Nagar, head of a local farmers' rights organisation, "but not on a scale where land was getting stolen or people were getting killed."...
About ten years ago a group of local "musclemen", as Aakash calls them, led by Rajpal Chauhan (no relation -- it's a common surname) and his three sons, seized control of the land. They stripped away its topsoil and started digging up the sand deposited by centuries of the Yamuna's floods. To make matters worse, the dust kicked up by the operation stunted the growth of crops, according to a complaint Paleram and other locals filed.
Nonetheless, Paleram and other villagers couldn't get it stopped. They petitioned police, government officials and courts for years, but nothing happened. Conventional wisdom says that many local authorities accept bribes from the miners to stay out of their business – or are involved in the business themselves. For those who don't take the carrot of a bribe, the mafias aren't shy about using a stick....In the past three years, miners have killed at least three police officers and attacked many others, as well as officials, journalists and whistle-blowers....
The broad, murky Thane Creek, just outside Mumbai, is swarming with small wooden boats on a recent winter morning. Hundreds of them are anchored together in a ragged line stretching almost a kilometre. The banks are lined with mangroves, towered over by apartment blocks. There's a tang of salt in the air from the nearby Arabian Sea, mixed with diesel from the boats' engines.
Each boat carries a crew of six to ten men. One or two of them dive to the creek bottom, fill a bucket with sand and return to the surface. Then two others, standing barefoot on planks jutting from the boat, haul up the bucket with ropes.
Pralhad Mhatre, 41, dives about 200 times a day. He's worked here for 16 years. It pays nearly twice what the pullers get -- about £10 a day. Mhatre wants his son and three daughters to go into another profession; he thinks the Thane will soon be mined out. "When I started, we only had to go down 20 feet," he says. "Now it's 40. We can only dive 50 feet. If it gets much lower, we'll be out of a job."
Rivers are excellent places to find sand. The stuff can be made by glaciers grinding up stones, by oceans degrading seashells, even by lava chilling and shattering upon contact with air. According to the Udden-Wentworth size scale, the most common geologic standard, sand is grains of any hard material between 0.0625mm and 2mm in diameter. But nearly 70 per cent of all sand is quartz. Time and the elements eat away at rock, grinding off grains. Rivers carry those grains, accumulating them in their beds, on their banks and where they meet the sea.
In the wild, quartz comes mixed with other materials -- iron oxides, feldspar, whatever prevails in the local geology. For commercial products you have to filter that out or start with a high silica content. The sand of France's Fontainebleau region, for instance, is upwards of 98 per cent pure silica. Europe's finest glassmakers have relied on it for centuries. Corning operates the world's largest ophthalmic glass-making centre in Fontainebleau; for lenses, the sand needs to be refined to 99.7 per cent silica. Electronics-grade silicon is refined to at least 99.999999999 per cent purity. As Welland writes, that's one atom of not-silicon among a billion silicon atoms.
The day after my trip to Thane Creek, Sumaira Abdulali, India's foremost campaigner against illegal sand mining, takes me to see a different kind of mine. The 54-year-old is a gentle and well-heeled member of the Mumbai bourgeoisie. For years she has been travelling to remote areas in a chauffeur-driven sedan, taking photographs of the sand mafias at work. In the process she's had her car windows smashed, been threatened, pelted with rocks, pursued at high speeds and punched hard enough to break a tooth.
Abdulali got involved when sand miners started tearing up a beach near Mumbai where her family has vacationed for generations. In 2004 she filed the first citizen-initiated court action against sand mining in India. It made the newspapers, which brought a flood of calls from others who wanted to stop their own local sand mafias. Abdulali has since helped dozens file court cases while keeping up a stream of complaints to local officials. "We don't want to halt development," she says. "But we want to put in accountability."
Over in the rural town of Mahad, sand miners once smashed up her car. Sand mining is banned here because of its proximity to a protected coastal zone. But in the jungled hills just outside town, we come to a grey-green river on which boats, in plain view, are sucking up sand from the bottom with diesel-powered pumps. The banks are dotted with piles of sand, which men are loading on to trucks.
Back on a main road, we find ourselves behind a convoy of three sand trucks. They rumble past a police van parked on the shoulder. A couple of policemen idle nearby. Another is inside taking a nap. This is too much for Abdulali. We pull up alongside. "Didn't you see those trucks carrying sand that just went past?" Abdulali asks an officer.
"We filed some cases this morning," answers the cop. "We're on our lunch break now."
Later I ask a local government official about this. "The police are hand in glove with the miners," says the official, who asks me not to name him. "When I call the police to escort me on a raid, they tip off the miners that we are coming." In the rare cases that are brought to court, no one has been convicted. "They always get off on some technicality."
Back in Raipur Khadar, after talking to Paleram Chauhan's family, Aakash agrees to show WIRED and our interpreter, Kumar Sambhav, the land the mafia has taken over. We'd rented a car in Delhi that morning, and Aakash directs our driver to the site. It's hard to miss: across the road from the village centre is an expanse of torn-up land pocked with craters up to six metres wide. Men are smashing rocks with hammers and loading trucks. They stop to stare at our car as we drive past. Aakash points out a heavy-set guy in jeans and a collared shirt: Sonu.
We get out to snap pictures of a huge crater. After a few minutes Aakash spots four men, three of them carrying shovels, striding purposefully toward us. "Sonu is coming," he mutters.
We start making our way back to the car, but we're too slow. "Motherfucker!" Sonu, now just a few metres away, barks at Aakash. "What are you doing here?"
"Mining?" Sonu says. "We are not mining. What did you see?"
"We saw whatever we saw. And now we're leaving."
"No, you're not," Sonu says.
The exchange continues for a couple of tense minutes, until one of Sonu's goons points out the presence of a foreigner -- me. This gives Sonu and his crew pause. Harming a westerner could mean trouble. We grab the chance to leave. Sonu, glaring, watches us go.
The case against Sonu and his relatives is grinding its way through India's courts. The outlook isn't great. "In our system you can buy anything -- witnesses, police, administrative officials," a legal professional explains. "And those guys have a lot of money from the mining business."...
India is taking steps to get sand mining under control. The National Green Tribunal, a sort of court for environmental matters, hears citizen complaints about illegal sand mining. The government has enlisted India's space agency to provide satellite imagery to monitor river mining. Villagers have blocked roads to stop sand trucks, and almost every day some local or state official declares their determination to combat sand mining. The magistrate of Raipur Khadar's district confiscated sand trucks and made arrests this year. But India has hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal sand-mining operations.
And the world's population is growing. People want housing, offices, factories, malls and roads. "The fundamental problem is the massive use of cement-based construction," says Ritwick Dutta, an Indian environmental lawyer. "That's why the sand mafia has become so huge." Economic development requires concrete and glass. It requires sand." via Free Rep.