Sixteen years ago, China cracked down on gangs that were illegally mining sand from the Yangtze River.
Before the police drove them away, the armed, violent gangs were extracting hundreds of tons of sand a day, ruining the riverbed and interrupting navigation as they made a mint off builders who needed sand to mix the concrete feeding China's building boom.
But the sand miners didn't go far.
On Friday, NASA's Earth Observatory released satellite images of Poyang Lake, China's largest freshwater body that's around 400 miles west of Shanghai. Comparing images from 1995 and 2013, the agency showed how miners had widened channels, stripped riverbanks, and dredged formerly shallow basins.
"Sand mining has compromised the ecological integrity of the lake," said James Burnham, an ecologist with the University of Wisconsin and the International Crane Foundation, in a NASA press release. "This is a lake that hosts 98 percent of the endangered Siberian Cranes and Oriental White Storks, as well as a significant number of over a dozen other endangered water birds in the winter."
False-color images taken by NASA Landsat satellites on December 7, 1995 and December 24, 2013 reveal the extent of sand mining activities in the northern reaches of Poyang Lake, which lies about 400 miles west of Shanghai, China. (Image via NASA Earth Observatory)
Poyang Lake is part of a trend. Sand mining is increasingly ruining coastlines, riverbanks, and other important ecosystems around the world, especially in the developing world where lax government oversight is giving rise to illicit mining and black markets.
Beachcombers might be surprised at armed gangs fighting over sand. Or residents in southern India filing lawsuits to force officials to stop illegal sand mining. Or the Gambian government jailing activists who staged protests against sand mining.
But sand and gravel are the most-used natural resource in the world after water — more than oil and gas — according to a 2014 United Nations Environment Program report. The world consumes around 40 billion tons of sand annually — twice the amount of sediment carried by all the Earth's rivers, according to the report. In Indonesia, sand miners destroyed 24 islands for sand to export to wealthy Singapore, effectively shrinking Indonesia's territory, the report said.
Sucking aquifers dry threatens drinking water supplies. Pumping oil contributes to climate change. Sand mining isn't necessary terrible for the environment, however, said Robert Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.
"Humanity has been using sand as a commodity for millennia," Young said. "Anywhere there is poured concrete, there is some sand. The problem comes when you are taking the sand from someplace that is environmentally sensitive, where the sand might be serving as habitat and where the sand is not going to replenish itself naturally."
Morocco is an example.
"It's sort of ironic," Young said. "Morocco has this huge beach sand mining problem when the whole friggin' south of the country is sand. The profit you make on the sand mining diminishes greatly with the distance you have to move it because it's heavy."
An estimated half of the sand used in construction in Morocco is mined illegally, WIRED reported last year. Young, who has conducted research on sand mining in the North African country, said crews are digging down to the sandstone bedrock and ruining beautiful Mediterranean beaches in order to acquire the raw materials — ironically again — for hotels.
"They are trying to build up their coastal tourism because they are just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the EU," said Young. But "they are mining that sand to use as construction aggregate to build a tourism industry for the beaches they are destroying."
Alternatively, when builders use sand mined faraway, the waste involved is staggering. Two artificial islands in Dubai — The Palm and The World — required a total of 650 million tons of sand that was shipped to the Persian Gulf from Australia, reported the French daily newspaper Les Echos. (Sea and river sand is vastly better than desert sand for construction.)
For comparison, New York and New Jersey have dumped around 35 million tons of sand on their beaches in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, said Young.
The damage wrought by Sandy is an example of what happens when people remove sand from beaches. In New York and New Jersey, vacation homes and development are usually displacing the sand. But to the environment, the bottom line is the same: The ecological damage and the lack of protective barriers against storms and rising sea levels are similar to the effects of mining, Young said.
He pointed to the controversial Mexican cement giant Cemex's sand mining operation in Marina, a city on Monterey Bay in North California. The only shoreline mining operation in the US, Cemex is technically legal because it opened 18 years before California adopted strict coastal environmental protections in the 1970s, Monterey County Weekly reported. Today, a miner could never set up in there.
Today, state and local officials are figuring out whether they can shut down the Cemex operation, which they claim has given their community the distinction of having the fastest-eroding coastline in the state. The mine is sucking up around 234,000 tons of sand annually, around as much as local beaches need to prevent erosion, according to a study commissioned by the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments.
Known as the "Serengeti of the Sea," the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary hosts a dazzling collection of marine life, including 180 birds. Its beautiful beaches are also among the best surfing spots in the US.
"In Monterey Bay, California, right in the middle of what you can argue is this country's most important marine area, Cemex is literally mining the beach and dunes for sand," said Young.
Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr