Beyond Manila Bay, sand extraction endangers billions of people

Published September 14, 2020, 6:57 AM

by AA Patawaran

We’re all going bananas about crushed dolomite on Manila Bay, but Houston, we have a (bigger) problem

There’s a war over sand, do you know it? People die for sand, trying to keep it, protect it, preserve it, steal it, and sell it. Reports have it that “hundreds have been killed in battles over sand in the past decade in countries including India and Kenya, among them local citizens, police officers, and government officials,” according to


But hundreds of deaths are only a grain of sand in the dunes when compared to up to three billion lives and livelihoods that sand mining is putting under grave threat, those lives and livelihoods along the rivers, from which sand is excavated to meet the demands of industrialization.

SAND MAKERS Indian workers crush stone into sand at an illegal mine near Raipur Village in India, photo taken by Adam Ferguson on 2015

“The land beneath our feet is sinking away,” said a 17-year-old girl in India in a video she posted of the sand mafia scooping sand out of the bed of the harbor in her coastal community in Kerala.

On the Riau islands of Sumatra, Indonesia, as stated in a report made by the Indonesian Center for Forestry Studies, dredging of sand, sometimes within meters of the shoreline, has caused extensive damage on the coral reefs and the seabed, some 400,000 hectares of it. Not only has it caused coastline erosion, it has also wiped out the fishing grounds.

In Northern Philippines, coastal towns like Lingayen, San Marcelino, Dagupan, Masinloc, and more are sinking at an alarming rate on account of magnetite mining or black sand mining operations, most of which are “illegal, foreign, and backed by political dynasties in the provinces,” claims the Northern Luzon environment and human rights network Amianan Salakniban. In a 2016 study made up north in the Philippines by American geologist Estelle Chaussard of the State University of New York and political scientist Sarah Kerosky of the University of California, it was found that “sites with subsidence rates of 1.8 and 3.0 centimeters a year are projected to be underwater in 50 to 70 years (while those with) subsidence rates of 4.3 and 4.6 centimeters a year are projected to be underwater in 30 to 40 years.” Lingayen is in danger of drowning. Its annual subsidence rate is 4.8 centimeters. So are Santa Lucia and Dagupan, both at 4.3 centimeters.

BLACK [SAND] PLAGUE Video of sand mining in Norther Luzon

And so are many parts of the world, such as in the maze of rivers in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and Cambodia, along the Yangtze in China or the Ganges where it flows from India to Bangladesh, in Morocco where illegal miners have scooped up stretches of beach in the name of the construction boom, and in Monterey, California, where to this day half a million tons of sand are extracted every year.


But sand is all too important, not only to beautify places like Manila Bay. It’s no exaggeration to say that all of civilization, going further back than the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, is built on sand. There is more and more evidence that the secret to building the pyramids was sand—wet, compact sand—over which sleds of stones weighing up to 90,000 pounds would be dragged from faraway places.

GRAINS OF HISTORY Gizah Pyramids in Egypt, photo by Ricardo Liberato

Sand is everywhere and not just between your toes on the beach or in your eyes in the desert during a dust storm. It’s in the laptop you are reading this in, whose CPU needed high grade silica sand to come into being. It’s also in the laptop monitor as well as the screens of your smartphone and your smart TV. It’s in the microchip contained in the credit or debit card you have at the ready in case some interesting product or service ad pops up on the website. It’s in the water tumbler next to you on your desk. And the house you live in, whether you’re in a bungalow or a high-rise made of concrete, glass, and steel, could not have been built without sand. Sand is also on the street your house is on. It’s on the roads, the avenues, the boulevards, and the highways, as well as the docks and the tarmacs, built to take you from your house to anywhere you want to be out there. Plus, there’s sand casting, an industrial process essential for the mass production of metal products or metal parts in such things as bikes, cars, ships, and airplanes, not to mention your app-enabled countertop slow cooker, your single serve coffee maker, your tripod-style desk lamp, and your steel-framed designer chair.

Sand is a vital component of modern living. It’s in microscopes and telescopes, in detergents, cosmetics, and toothpaste, even in the solar panels we need to harvest renewable energy. The concrete jungle that is our modern life is really just a ton of sand mixed with other things, such as gravel and cement.In the modern world, we need sand as much as we need water and air.

GLASS WORLD We rely heavily on sand, almost as much as we need air and water

The UN Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that global demand for sand (and gravel) is an average of 18 kilograms per person per day, amounting to 50 billion tons a year. In 2012, consumption was said to have exceeded 40 billion tons, up from nine billion tons in the 1970s. An article published in the E360 newsletter at the Yale School of the Environment in Connecticut claims that “sand mining is the world’s largest mining endeavor, responsible for 85 percent of all mineral extraction. It is also the least regulated and quite possibly the most corrupt and environmentally destructive.”


It’s just sand and it’s cheap, but it’s built our cities, and now that it’s running out, it’s a matter of life and death. Already with illegal aggregate mining operations identified in over 70 countries, the pressure is on, as waters are becoming turbid, habitats and eco-systems are being disrupted, coastlines are eroding, riverbanks shrinking, deltas sinking, and islands—at least 24 small islands in Indonesia since 2005—vanishing. Also, based on the UNEP findings, “extraction in rivers and beaches has increased pollution and flooding, lowered groundwater levels, hurt marine life, and exacerbated the occurrence and severity of landslides and droughts.”

STOLEN LAND Beach sand is being mined illegally on Morocco’s north coast, near Tangier, photo from

It’s not enough. Global demand for sand and gravel, according to the World Wide Fund (WWF), “has increased rapidly over the past two decades, largely driven by growth in the Asia Pacific region, particularly in China but also increasingly in India. Astonishingly, China consumed more sand between 2011 and 2013 than the US did in the whole of the 20th century.” But the world wants more sand, as we do on Manila Bay.

There is marine sand and there is desert sand and there is river sand. Marine sand is complicated. You need to get the salt out of every grain, lest it causes corrosion in buildings and other structures you build with the sand. Desert sand is too smooth, the grains too round, shaped by wind instead of water, so it won’t easily adhere to other materials, which is why Dubai, the vast Arabian Desert notwithstanding, has to depend on Australia to supply the sand it needs for its massive infrastructure plans. Of all, river sand is most ideal for construction, therefore the rivers, which make up only less than one percent of the world’s land, are the most adversely affected by excessive, unregulated, if not illegal, mining.

Nature does replenish sand. Currents scrape away soil, eat away at stones, pulverize seashells, turn lava into volcanic glass that splinters into bits upon contact with air, and deposit all these sediments beneath the corals, on the banks, in the depths. As they move or melt, even glaciers pick up material that, when they retreat, they leave in valleys and tunnels filled with mounds of sand, gravel, small rocks, and mud. But just like many of our natural resources, finite or renewable, we are consuming sand faster than nature can replace it. Now we’re running out of sand.

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What to do? The WWF challenges the construction industry, especially in Asia and Africa, to consider alternatives to river-sourced sand and gravel or to alter building designs and methods to reduce extraction of sand to sustainable, more manageable levels. “Europe has shown that developed economies can continue to prosper without resorting to river sand,” it said. “Its supplies now come from crushed quarry rocks, recycled concrete, and marine sand.”

Sand is too plain, too ubiquitous to get the sort of attention that illegally mined diamonds have. But it deserves just as much attention, because its impact is so tremendous.

—Sumaira Abdulali, environmentalist, India

In the 2013 issue of the International Scientific and Research Publications, researchers from engineering and technology institutions in India concluded that “quarry dust can be utilized in concrete mixtures as a good substitute for natural river sand.” But there are other potential remedies, the use of recycled building rubble instead of new concrete for new constructions, for instance. In Malaysia, experiments replacing sand and cement with coal bottom ash and fly ash, the waste from power station incinerators, of which 8.5 million tons are produced every year, have yielded promising conclusions. These experimental concrete mixes have proved useful in such structures as foundations, sub-bases, and pavements.

S[T]AND BY The current state of Manila Bay as dolomite sand is being transported to form the man-made beach, file photo from Manila Bulletin

Of course, regulation is vital. Reports have it that, in many developing countries, governments are complicit with the sand mafia, whose operation in worst cases includes intimidation, sometimes even murder, money changing hands, and sexual favors granted in exchange for sand. That be may true, but sometimes it is because those with the power to stop it, especially in remote regions, are not familiar enough with the problem.


WWF recommends a “societal shift similar to that required to address climate change.” “It necessitates changes in the way that sand and rivers are perceived, and cities are designed and constructed,” it said.What’s surprising is not how few people know about sand mining, what is surprising is how little even those people know. Public awareness is key to solving a problem of this scope, but to mount an effective information campaign, more scientific research on the impact of sand mining and its many ill effects must be made, the results of which need to be simplified and made resonant to the general public.

HAZARDS OF SAND Dolomite, a material primarily used in construction, poses health risks to both human and aquatic life. File photo from Manila Bulletin

And this is the silver lining to the dark cloud hovering over the white sand on Manila Bay—the conversations it has sparked, along with the clashes and the squabbles. Because yes, sand is worth the fight.

It’s not even sand on Manila Bay, of course, it is crushed dolomite, harvested from the coastal town of Alcoy in Cebu apparently without the thorough environmental impact assessments mandated by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) administrative order 2003-03 and Presidential Decree No.1586, the Environment Impact Statement System.

I’m doing a quick search on dolomite, but so far, aside from other compliance issues,such as the lack of therequired consultation and coordination with the local officials, all I’ve found is how the extraction has been a big blow to the sanctuary of an endangered bird endemic to the forests of Cebu—the black shama or the siloy.

As the DENR issues the need for deeper studies on the environmental impact of mining these sedimentary carbonate rocks and pulverizing them to the consistency of sugar-white, powdery-fine sand for the P389-million beach nourishment project on Manila Baywalk, so do I need to learn more about dolomite, but that’s a story for another day.