Drivers and consequences of industrial-scale sand mining in Dubai

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This conservation resource was created by Angelo Chang, Ali Bader, Yuhan Yang, Esther Felgentreff. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

Dubai is known for being one of the fastest growing cities in the world[1], with a tremendously increasing construction sector. In order to attract tourists, more business and provide more houses on the waterfront, the construction of a massive artificial island, the Palm Jumeirah, was finished in 2006. As it is needed in order to complete both its building projects and the creation of this island, sand is a key resource. Sand mining is an efficient way of extracting sand in order to meet Dubai's and the world's increasing demand of sand, but it has certain harmful environmental effects.

Burj Khalifa. By Imre Solt via Wikimedia Commons. GNU Free Documentation License

Dubai is seen as the epitome of urbanization[2]. In Dubai, more than 300 kilometers of coastline has been artificially constructed and there is a rapid expansion of urban land cover[3]. Construction is the core element of urbanization. The construction industry relies heavily on sand[4]. It is argued that sand is a new victim of global urbanization[5]. For instance, Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure in the world, is held together by sand[6].

Today, Dubai is a popular tourist destination in the world. Tourism plays an important role in the Dubai government's plan to maintain the flow of foreign cash into the emirates[7]. The government invests huge amounts of money in building tourist attractions, such as the Palm Islands and the Burj Khalifa. The construction of Palm Jumeirah, an artificial island in Dubai, was done in order to attract more tourists and provide more accommodations. This large project is particularly resource consuming, as Palm Jumeirah was built entirely from natural materials, sand and rocks, and it consumed 94 million cubic meters of sand.[8]

Sand mining in sedimentary core. By Geoli via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

Sand is essentially small rocks, found on beaches, in deserts, and on the floor of oceans, lakes and rivers. Most of it is formed during weathering, the slow dissolving of rocks as a result of external influences[9] – which also means that it takes a long time for sand to arise<[10]. Sand is often thought of as an infinite resource. It is a favorable resource as it is cheap - there are, in fact, no costs for the resource itself, only for the process of extracting and transporting it.[11] However, it is used in many ways and extracted from many regions in order to do so. In fact, sand now is the second most natural resource used after freshwater[12], as it is needed for many purposes. Sand is used to make concrete and cement, to build roads, to make paint, to restore beaches after erosions, to build solar panels, for fracking and even in toothpaste[13]. But especially in the building sector, sand is critical. 80 % of the mined sand is used to create concrete.[14] To build a single-family house, 200 tons of sand are needed[15]. The demand for sand is growing fast around the world, especially in developing countries[16]. Currently, the annual use of sand is estimated to be 15 billion tons per year, and at the same time, the amount extracted exceeds the amount of newly formed sand[12].

This shortage of sand prompted a black market sand industry, which is becoming violent in some areas[17]. The situation is made even harder due to the fact that not all sands are suitable for the construction industry. Although the United Arab Emirates is a desert country, its sand is not considered to be suitable for building,[18] as it is too smooth and fine[19]. The most advantageous sand for construction is derived from ocean and river beds[11]. As a result, there is a huge demand for those special kinds of sand over the world[20]. It is reported that the United Arab Emirates imported $456 million worth of sand, stone and gravel in 2014.[13] Dubai has exhausted its own marine sand resources in building the Palm Islands,[21] so it now relies on importing sand for its construction industry.

Sand mining from an open pit. By Sumaira Abdulali via Wikimedia Commons. [BY-SA 3.0]

Sand mining is the process of removing sand from their natural configuration,[22] which is mainly used to provide sand for concrete.[23] It is an efficient way of extracting sand. Massive sand mining operations stretch across Southeast Asia, Australia, South Africa, and as far as the United States and the Caribbean.[24] Sand mining is a high-profit industry. It is estimated that a sand contractor can earn nearly 50 times more than a sand carrier or loader[4]. High demand for sand in most countries brings high profit for this industry.

However, high profit from sand mining sometimes spurs profiteering.[25] Illegal sand mining is defined as sand theft, which is a significant part of the $200-billion global environmental crime challenge.[26] High profit has blinded illegal sand miners to the havoc they are causing, including disturbance of ecosystem, the collapse of houses on river banks and so on.[27]

The city of Dubai has built more and more over the last few decades continues this trend. This goes hand in hand with its demand in sand, which has increased in order to complete all its construction projects. In addition to that, there is another application of sand quite unique to Dubai: The artificial islands in front of the coast.

In order to increase Dubai’s attractiveness and fame around the world, Crown Prince Sheikh Muhammad bin Rasheed Al Maktoum came up with the idea to build an artificial archipelago which would increase the coastline of Dubai. The island should be formed like a date palm tree and only created out of sand and rocks. In 2001, the construction firm Nakheel started building the Palm Jumeirah. It was finished in 2006 and nowadays, provides home for 4500 luxury villas, 22 hotels, shopping malls and other attractions.[28] The island is home for 120,000 people and has 20,000 daily visitors.[29] The island is connected to the mainland with roads and a monorail line.[30] Due to the high demand of property on the Palm Jumeirah, several other man-made islands have been created in Dubai and more are planned. In 2002, construction of the Palm Jebel Ali started, but is currently put on hold.[31] Construction of the Deira Islands is currently on hold, too.[32] In addition, the World Islands, an archipelago of 300 islands lying in between the Palm Islands, has been built and the islands have been sold individually.[33] Further descriptions about the construction of Dubai’s artificial islands will concentrate on the first island, Palm Jumeirah, as an example, as the other projects mainly followed its pioneer.

Palm Jumeirah, surrounded by breakwaters. By Commander Leroy Chiao via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

This new island was built to resist strong environmental influences like permanent tidal waves or even storm waves. Planners took sea level rise due to global warming into account, too. Another possible threat comes from Dubai’s position at the edge of the Arabian plate, which makes it prone to earthquakes.[34] However, the Arabian Gulf is an advantageous location to nevertheless build an artificial island, as it is only 160 km wide and 30 m deep, making it too small and shallow for enormous waves to develop.[35] The major challenge was to find a way to secure the island’s constancy despite permanent influences by the environment. This was done by surrounding the palm with large crescent-shaped breakwaters. Overall, they are 11 km long.[36] These consist of a more than 7 m thick layer of sand, followed by a layer of rubble stones which came from quarries from all over the country. On top and on the outside of that, large rocks were placed to ensure the breakwater’s stability. These rocks are wedged into each other. Frequent tests have to be done to ensure their solidity.[8] Only after these shielding breakwaters were constructed, the building of the actual island could start. The artificial palm islands themselves are made entirely out of sand. The sand was extracted from the Arabian Gulf 60 miles off-coast of Dubai and transported with ships. The placement of the sand was done using the rainbowing technique, in which ships spray the sand through the air to the water with a rate of 10 m/s,[35] creating an arch.[37] Differential global positioning systems, which operate over satellites, ensured that the sand was sprayed exactly where the islands were meant to be.[8] In contrast to using pipelines or other immobile structures, rainbowing is a beneficial technique, as it just requires a movable and therefore flexible ship with the sand loaded.[37] After spraying, sand must be compacted in order to be a dense and stable layer. When waiting long enough, this is happening over time, but it can be done mechanically in a process called vibro-compaction. That is accomplished by water jetting through special jets, which create a sort of “shaking” in the ground, causing the sand particles to rearrange in a denser way. This generates a more compact structure in the ground.[38] The holes caused by the jets can then be filled up with new sand.[8] This water jetting process causes local liquefaction – closing the ranks of the sand particles and therefore, lowering its overall level – which can be caused by an earthquake in a bigger scale. Therefore, this compacting limits the consequences of a possible earthquake.[35] In total, for the creation of the Palm Jumeirah alone, 94 cubic meters of sand and seven million tons of rock were used. [36]

The United Arab Emirates imports its sand from Australia because the local wind formed desert sand is too smooth to be used for construction. In 2014, the United Arab Emirates imported 456 million dollars worth of sand from Australia[13]. Most sand mining in Australia is done on Stradbroke Island.[39] There have been a number of environmental incidents that have sparked controversy starting shortly after sand mining commenced on the island.[40] In March 1980, a large landslide took place that transformed the coastline and uprooted four hectares of vegetation. There were no efforts made to rehabilitate the landscape, instead, a boating recreation site was constructed on the displaced coastline.[40] In 1987, a lake on Stradbroke Island was partially drained, damaging it beyond recovery, after a mining company breached its impervious layer. In 1991, a sand mining[41] company spilled up to one-hundred thousand liters of diesel into Amity Swamp; this incident was not reported until 1994, and not acknowledged by the company until 1997. None of these incidents lead to any punishment or fine by the Australian government towards the sand mining companies. The Queensland Conservation Council stated that the destruction of sand dunes on Stradbroke Island “will mean permanent loss of the original plant community. Stabilization is all that can be expected after mining as true restoration is not feasible”[40]. Another factor fueling the controversial nature of the Australian sand mining industry is that the government is currently allowing mining on leases which expired back in 2007.[39] Also, Stradbroke island embodies a large aquifer of freshwater which is at risk, along with all other bodies of freshwater nearby, due to sand mining activities.[39]

Sand mining in general is known to have numerous adverse effects on the environment. In addition to the land losses caused by the extraction of sand, further land is lost afterwards due to the extracted land being more prone to erosion.[11] This loss of land leads to a number of repercussions. It can lead to lowering of the water table, large amounts of vegetation being destroyed, changes in water flow, flood regulation and marine currents. In addition, it can result in reduced protection against extreme events such as floods, droughts, and storm surges. It can also cause an increase in water pollution due to a higher amount of eroded materials.[42] This increase in water pollution leads to an increase in water turbidity which has further repercussions: it results in a reduced light penetration which decreases the photosynthetic activity of plants and reduces plant biomass, which, again, drastically affects aquatic ecosystems through trophic cascades. Spawning and hatching patterns of certain aquatic animals are also disturbed.[41] And increase in water turbidity also reduces oxygen levels in water that also adversely affects plants and causes respiratory distress in aquatic animals.[41] During the construction of the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, an oyster bed, which is one of the areas of highest biological productivity, was destroyed by sand mining.[43] It is also worth noting that both Palm projects and The World Island project in Dubai required a combined weight of eight hundred and thirty-five million tonnes of sand.[44] Transporting this massive amount of sand from Australia to the United Arab Emirates would have contributed large amounts of emissions into the climate.[11]

The act of sand mining becomes controversial as a result of the environmental impacts and consequences sand mining can cause. Common protesters against sand mining activities are often locals (of the mining area) who felt their home is being exploited, as the process of sand mining often destroys or alters landscapes. Sand mining and its resulting consequences also brought attention of environmental conservation groups, especially if the respective consequence of a sand mining activity is severe and significant.

Stradbroke island

The sand mining activities in Stradbroke Island, Australia, serves as an example of the environmental perspective and criticism on sand mining. Sand mining since the 1950s had permanently reshaped and disturbed the Island. Consolidated Rutile Limited (CRL), one of the companies responsible for the excessive sand mining, had spent over $300.000 as an attempt to fix the damage, and later declared that the disturbance of Stradbroke landscape cannot be repaired. CRL continues sand mining activities in a more sustainable fashion, and believed that restoration is possible within a 10 years’ timeframe. However, the Queensland Conservation Council stated that stabilization of Stradbroke is all that can be expected[39]. The unfixable damage of Stradbroke Island raised concerns from locals and environmental groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF). The ACF organized campaigns and protests against the Stradbroke sand mining, which were originally planned to be expanded by the state government, with the goal of preventing further loss of the local natural and cultural resources.[45] The Labour Government party of Australia legislated to end mining on North Stradbroke by 2019.[46] Dubai is known for importing a majority of its sand from Australia.[10]

Responses to concerns

In response to the environmental concerns, various state governments (respective to the sand mining area) lay down policies and laws that prevents mass environmental destruction. India, for example, issued permissible limits to the extracted sand, and the operations are to be monitored closely to prevent erosion. The policy also aims to prevent illegal sand mining which is very common in a India.

Protest poster against sand mining in India. By Sumaira Abdulali via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

Although most legal sand mining companies take greater environmental care, the process still results in net loss of sand, resulting in net loss in land due to erosion. Conservation Action Trust Debi Goneka stated that one method to ensure sustainable sand mining is if the quantity of extracted sand is less than the quantity of sand regenerated by nature. The method poses problems for countries that depend heavily on sand mining and/or sand import, such as Dubai, where the rapid development in buildings and structures results in high demand of sand as a raw material.

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Post image:  By Commander Leroy Chiao via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.