LE MATELIER — “The ‘Le Matelier' project? We don't want it." Didier Quentin, mayor of the town of Royan, is backed in his fight by six other mayors along the same coast in southwestern France to fight the removal and commercialization of the beach sand and gravel in the Gironde estuary.

The coveted site is located a few cable-lengths away from the coast, just opposite the tourist town of Marthes-La Palmyre, in the locality known as the “Le Matelier.”

Two companies, Granulats Ouest and Dragages Transports et Travaux Maritimes are however considering extracting for 30 years some 13 million cubic meters of aggregate.

“We don't want to play God,” insists Quentin, who is also a member of the French Parliament, and is trying to pressure to officials in Paris. “Our coastline is fragile, as we were able to see during the 1999 and 2010 storms. The sandbanks break up the swell. If you reduce them through industrial exploitation, who knows what will happen. Coastal erosion could accelerate and the risk of submersion intensifies."

Offshore sand

This ongoing local power struggle is a perfect illustration of the challenges posed by the growing global sand and gravel exploitation, as industrialists increasingly turn towards offshore sand, along the continental shelf, sometimes arriving on coastal beaches.

Though beach sand exploitation represents only 2.5% of the total production in Europe, experts warn that it is rising. “Until recently, sand was extracted from quarries and riverbeds; however, the exploitation of sea aggregate is on the rise given the relative depletion of land resources. On the global level, growth is exponential,” notes Pascal Peduzzi, a researcher from the United Nations Environment Program. “We should undoubtedly be concerned about future sand supplies. Sand is rarer than we used to think."

A curious statement, to say the least, seeing as “on the global scale, sand seems inexhaustible, as it is estimated there are 120 million tons. "The number of grains of sand on the planet is equivalent to the number of stars in the universe,” quips Eric Chaumillon, a marine geology at the University of La Rochelle.

Royan beach — Photo: Dani Wood

Still, much of the sand is far from being exploitable. It is either buried too deep under the sea, or its component structure makes it unsuitable for exploitation. There are three categories, Chaumillon explains: The “aeolian” sand from deserts. Plentiful, its grain, worn out and round, makes it almost unusable. The “fluviatile” sand, that can be found on ancient and current riverbeds, and offshore near estuaries, is, on the other hand, little worn and very angular.

"The third, between the first two, is made up of beach sand,” says Chaumillon. Only the last two are coveted and exploited for global needs. And they're huge.

Growing demand

The construction industry is the first in line, using it for its buildings, bridges, dams, but also roads, railways, seawalls. About 200 tons of sand are required for an average-sized house, 3,000 for a hospital, 30,000 for one kilometer of highway, or even 12 million for a nuclear power plant. The backfilling of beaches and poldering make up the second use of sand. Then comes industrial consumption: the production of glass, photovoltaic cells or needs linked to the hydraulic fracturing of shale oil.

“Today, aggregate represents the second most mass-consumed natural resource, after water, but before oil and gas,” notes Chaumillon.

Still, there is a lack of precise statistics, as no international organization has taken an inventory of the global sand production and consumption. Developed countries have released figures, but developing and emerging countries don't have data.

“Overall, between 50 and 60 billion tons of material are extracted on a global scale every year, sand and gravel represent 68% to 85% of the total,” explains Peduzzi, citing a study published in March 2014.

Palm Jumeirah island Photo: Richard Schneider

Based only on the production of concrete (one-third cement for two-thirds of sand), 30 billion tons of sand are consumed every year, with China single-handedly accounting for 60% of the total. “In the past four years, China has consumed as much sand as the United States in one century,” notes Peduzzi.

Increase of the global population, growing urbanization with more megacities, economic expansion of developing countries, multiplication of tourist hotel complexes... A large numbers of factors are coming together to lead to an always increasing demand for sand.

The thirst is such that its extraction is strongly coveted; and though sand has been over-exploited for decades, the international community is only now starting to realize the risks. Sand exploitation may be strictly supervised in developed countries, but it's not the case in developing and emerging countries. “If no supervising political measure is implemented, criminal networks can take hold of the market,” says Laure Simplet, a geology engineer from the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea.

Black markets

One place to look for illicit activities is wadi sand extraction in North Africa. In Oran, Algeria, authorities say some 200 people were arrested in 2015 for sand looting. Often organized in specialized networks, they strike at night to supply illegal quarries or construction sites. In Morocco, some beaches have straight out disappeared.

Bruce Edwards, writing in the International Monetary Fund journal Finance & Development in December, said that half of the sand used in construction in Morocco — 10 million cubic meters — comes from illegal coastal sand extraction. Meanwhile, in some parts of India, cartels control the supply, as the price of sand has soared radically with the housing boom over the past decade.

In Senegal last year, President Macky Sall asked the government to take measures “to put an end to the illegal and large-scale extraction of beach sand and dunes on coastlines.” Entire islands have even disappeared in Asia. Singapore's sand-buying frenzy to continuously extend its territory — the surface of the island increased by 20% in 40 years — has created tensions. Its extension was made at the cost of some 20 Indonesian islands that disappeared from the face of Earth before Jakarta prohibited, in the early 2000s, the exportation of sand.

“Before exporting sand was banned from Indonesia, but also Thailand and Malaysia, the price of a ton of sand in the region was around $3. It's now gone up to $190,” says Peduzzi.

Today, Singapore reportedly continues to illegally import sand from Cambodia and Vietnam. And trafficking through dealers and fictitious companies also reportedly continues.

More questions

Some colossal projects also raise questions. Starting with Dubai. The construction of artificial islands, The Palm and The World, along its coast, for its wealthy clients, required the importation of sea sand, which wound up coming from Australia, for respectively 150 and 500 million tons. In the same way, what's the use of having the tallest tower in the world, the Burj Khalifa, when one third of its surface is unoccupied?

“We know sand and gravel extraction is superior to the replenishment of the resources,” explains Pascal Peduzzi.

Eric Chaumillon notes that “sand and aggregate are formed on geological time scales. Several thousands, even millions of years are required for them to be replenished.”

Regeneration is also being disturbed by the multitude of dams built. The International Commission on Large Dams has listed about 60,000 in the world, and one-fourth of the world's sand could be stuck because of these constructions. With the exploitation of riverbeds, 50% of river sand will never see the sea.

This is a real problem. Very often, we resort to what's easiest. But by extracting large quantities of sand on a beach, in a riverbed or at the bottom of the sea, the ecosystem becomes seriously affected. If cyclone Sandy devastated the east coast of the U.S. in late 2012, it's partly because beaches have relatively disappeared, as they made up natural barriers against such storms.

This is part of why people in Royan and other French towns nearby don't want the “Matelier” project. At a time where sustainable development has never seemed more important, it's more than time to do dig in and think hard about the preciousness of sand.