At a meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Sydney, Australia, in July 2003, scientists revealed a startling finding; that, there are 10 times more stars in the night sky than grains of sand in the world's deserts and beaches.
As told in The Telegraph, the astronomers had worked out that there are 70 thousand million million million - or seven followed by 22 zeros - stars visible from the Earth through telescopes.
This total was determined to be the most accurate estimate yet of the number of stars. This means that, at ten times less the number of stars, there are around 7 thousand million million million particles of sand.
Let alone the stars, that the individual grains in their vast spreads on beaches and mountainous dunes in the desert can be counted is mindboggling enough.
But it is a reminder that, when you a number to something – especially something such as a mass of sand whose number of particles is so abstract as not to be bothered with, it not only opens one to the idea that it is finite but that, as a natural resource, there must be a limit to how much it may be exploited.
This was the essence in the recent United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report that sounded the alarm over unregulated sand harvesting.
The report, Sand and Sustainability: Finding new solutions for environmental governance of global sand resources, laments global demand for sand and gravel that currently stands at 40 to 50 billion tonnes per year.
It says that shifting consumption patterns, growing populations, increasing urbanization and infrastructure development have increased demand three-fold over the last two decades to the current 50 billion tonnes per year.
As a result, the aggregate extraction in rivers, for instance, has led to pollution, flooding, lowering of water aquifers and worsening drought occurrence.
Sand has various uses in construction. Most building materials, including concrete, bricks, glass, are made of it. Microchips and some components in telephones derive from sand.
However, most of the sand used for construction comes mainly from riverbeds and oceans. Builders discount desert sand as unsuitable for concrete and bricks for being too smooth for the mix. Desert sand grains are generally too round and smooth to stick together which makes such sand unsuitable as a basis for cement
As for sand harvesting from the oceans, it also tends to have some serious impact. The harvesting not only deepens the seafloor undermining the coral reefs but that the sediment plumes created during the harvesting can also suffocate invertebrates, algae and fish, killing the reef.
Whether from the riverbed or the oceans, unregulated harvesting often negatively impacts on livelihoods. Some of the communities dependent on rivers across sub-Saharan Africa curse the sand harvesting. The sand in seasonal rivers retains water which they scoop out sand to collect the water. Without the sand, many have been left struggling for the precious commodity.
Likewise, other than illegal mining stripping of beaches along many coastal areas in Africa, communities living off the sea are also threatened with declined fish yields for food or for sale.
Around East Africa, there have been concerns on Lake Victoria such as early last year when the Uganda environment authority took issue with a Chinese firm over illegal harvesting of sand along the shores of Nkumba near Entebbe.
There also has been an outcry on the harvesting on the Kenyan coast leading to conflict with other sectors such as tourism and fisheries. Perhaps more disturbing is the cases of dried rivers in parts of the country due to excessive sand harvesting and the social impact it has had for lack of water.
In Tanzania, Zanzibar’s example stands out as its beaches are slowly being stripped due to excessive use of sand for construction.
Only few countries such as Rwanda seem to have a grip on the harvesting, as noted in a State of the Environment report on the national environment authority’s (REMA) website.
UNEP’s report builds on decades of experiencing the problem. Thus, as Joyce Msuya, UNEP Acting Executive Director, notes, complex questions inevitably loom on how to deliver on ecosystem and biodiversity conservation goals.
She explains that we need to reconcile relevant global policies and standards with local sand availability, development imperatives and standards and enforcement realities.
We also need to recognize the interdependence between countries and sectors and learn lessons on how to manage this critical resource sustainably.
There are ways of dealing with the problem posed by the increased sand harvesting such as reducing overbuilding and over-design, and using recycled and alternative materials.
Fundamentally, as Ms Msuya also notes, improving governance of global sand resources means increasing the will to act, at all levels of government and industry.
May the policymakers pay heed, and then sand may not only continue to be compared to the stars in the number of its grains but safeguard its crucial ecological role.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.