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Sand Wars 2013


Distributed by Green Planet Films, PO Box 247, Corte Madera, CA 94976-0247; 415-377-5471
Produced by Guillaume Rappeneau, Laurent Mini, Karim Samai and Nathalie Barton
Directed by Denis Delistrac
DVD, color, 52 min.

General Adult
Technology, Culture, Environmental Education, Social Sciences, Sustainability, Beach Erosion, Environmental Science

Date Entered: 08/25/2014

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

Doomsday scenarios about resource depletion mostly feature the usual suspects: oil, timber, and water. Few, however, would suspect that sand is essential to modern civilization and increasingly in short supply. As the title of this film suggests, insatiable demand for sand – to stem beach erosion, to make glass, for concrete, in computer chips and in countless consumer products – may soon trigger sand wars every bit as dangerous as the wars for water that have divided citizens and pitted nation against nation. Demand is so great for sand, especially as the foundation for concrete, that criminal mafias around the world have organized a lucrative business around the plunder and sale of the precious material.

Each kilometer of highway alone requires about 30,000 tons of sand. A nuclear plant takes about 12 million tons of sand to build. In Dubai, amidst a frenzy of land speculation, developers realized it was cheaper to make land, by creating sand islands extending into the ocean, than to buy it. Desert sand, it turns out, is no good for building islands or construction. Its grains are smooth and circular and thus do not stick together like the rough and angular sand dredged from rivers or the ocean floor. So to satisfy demand the sand extraction industry has turned to dredging rivers and the ocean floor itself. The process of dredging has onerous environmental consequences. Sand is the central link on the underwater ecological chain. Removing the thin layer of sand on the ocean floor is the equivalent of bulldozing a forest: it destroys the plants and animals that depend on the environment created by the sandy bottom. Loss of fish habitat also decimates fishing grounds and the livelihoods of those who depend on them.

Meanwhile, building too close to the shore prevents the waves from pushing the sand on the beach back into the land. Instead, the sand is drawn back into the ocean, accelerating the retreat of the beaches into the ocean – and ultimately inundating the buildings, since the sand is the only effective barrier to the ocean for those billions of people around the globe who live near it. In Florida, nine out of 10 beaches are in danger of disappearing. The Maldives, disappearing rapidly into the ocean, are ground zero of beach erosion. Whole islands off the coast of Indonesia, a site for dredging, have created gaping holes off shore into which 25 Indonesian Islands have literally disappeared. Beaches on the coast of Morocco have disappeared to fuel the construction boom on land – which is fueled in large part by the promise of living near the once beautiful beaches. In India the sand mafia is the most powerful criminal organization, insinuating itself directly into the heart of the construction industry and the political and regulatory structures that aid and abet India’s breakneck growth. Singapore also has a voracious appetite for sand, consuming it in massive quantities to extend the island city-state into the surrounding waters and support its seemingly unstoppable growth.

Cities and countries that can afford it engage in expensive dredging and replacement just off shore for the lost sand on the beach – termed beach replenishment. The dredging companies may profit, but such coastal engineering is only a band aid, as the replenished beach is washed back into the ocean within a year or two.

While modern civilization has depleted the available sand, it has also interrupted the process of sand formation. Sand begins at river-water sources in the mountains, formed from the actions of glaciers and water breaking apart rocks and ultimately deposited into the ocean with river sediments. But widespread damming has blocked this flow of sediment. About half of the sand that should flow into the oceans is stuck behind the world’s nearly million dams. And the sand that does make it beyond the dams is often subject to dredging – mostly illegal. Once sand is turned into concrete, it is no longer an available resource. It is locked out of the eco-systems that depend upon it.

The film ends, as so many films do, by suggesting an alternative form of construction technology to reinforced concrete, the main consumer of sand. It suggests the use of various recycled materials, including sand from recycled glass, but nothing short of a building revolution will slow down the alarming depletion of global sand resources. Like the automobile industry’s addiction to oil, the construction industry is addicted to sand.

This documentary is one of dozens in recent years telling a familiar tale about the environmental dangers of unchecked growth. These documentaries testify to a growing awareness of the dangers of global capitalism, but there is little evidence, at least yet, that they have had any impact on the practices they rightly expose and condemn. They make for depressing, if edifying, viewing.