The Environmental Impact of Sand Dredging and the Urgency for Sustainable Solutions

Sand dredging, a practice responsible for extracting approximately six billion tonnes of sand from the world’s oceans annually, is causing significant damage to marine ecosystems and coastal communities, warns the United Nations (UN). Considered the second most exploited natural resource after water, sand is crucial for the production of concrete and glass. However, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reveals that some dredging vessels are not only extracting sand but also essential micro-organisms that fish rely on for sustenance, leading to irreversible consequences for marine life. Alarmingly, the new data coincides with the introduction of Marine Sand Watch, an innovative analysis tool that combines marine tracking and artificial intelligence to monitor dredging activities. Pascal Peduzzi, the head of UNEP’s analytics centre GRID-Geneva, stresses that the magnitude of the environmental effects caused by shallow sea mining and dredging is concerning. Out of the 50 billion tonnes of sand and gravel used globally each year, an average of six billion tonnes are sourced from oceans and seas worldwide, equivalent to over a million dump trucks every day. Large vessels engaged in sand dredging are not only depleting the seabed but also sterilising it by crushing microorganisms that form the basis of marine food chains. In some areas, the extraction is so severe that the marine ecosystem may never recover. UNEP advocates for a complete ban on sand dredging in coastal areas to safeguard both the resilience of coastlines and local economies. While sand is vital for the construction of infrastructure such as buildings, roads, dams, and solar panels, it also plays a crucial environmental role, protecting communities from the impacts of rising sea levels. The report identifies the South China Sea, the North Sea, and the US east coast as regions where extensive dredging has taken place, underscoring the urgent need for sustainable alternatives to reduce the detrimental effects of sand extraction. The consequences of unrestricted sand dredging extend beyond immediate environmental concerns. It is crucial for governments, industries, and individuals to recognize the long-term implications of this practice and adopt sustainable solutions that seek to balance the need for sand with the preservation of marine ecosystems and coastal communities.