More than 800 UK properties will be lost to coastal erosion in the next 20 years, at a cost of more than £1 billion. But the material that makes up beaches is commanding a high worldwide price-tag, to the point where it is becoming a scarce commodity linked to criminality. Jon Herbert looks at the business, financial and environmental impacts of shifting sands.

The winter storms of 2012/2013 wreaked enormous damage around the British coastline. The 2014 season opened with another train of wild wet weather. If climate change predictions prove correct, and the UK is set to be hammered by increasingly frequent warm, wet, blustery winters, the cost of defending the terra firma on which many homes and houses stand might simply be too high.

It’s a case of shifting sands on a grand scale. But increasingly, sand is not just fine rubble lost in the tempest, it is a vital commodity with a market value. It is also essential to high technology.

“Sand” is broad term. Specific UK sands, for example, have until recently been exported worldwide for their ultra-fine optical polishing qualities. High quality sand is also in demand for the concrete structures that are increasingly making cities home for a burgeoning world population.

Many elusive rare earth minerals that are essential to modern industries are in rising demand too but growing hard to source globally. These are often found in sands that, from a western point of view, are not in convenient geographical locations. Meanwhile, sand is used in toothpastes and as a fining agent in wine. The list goes on.

Silicon revolutions

Speaking of optics, sand was also the basis of the first silicon revolution — the development of glass. Silica is the second most abundant element in the world and its atomic structure, with an electrical conductivity that can be manipulated, makes it an extremely important semiconductor, leading to the second silicon revolution — micro-chips.

In the next stage of the digital age revolution, perhaps involving quantum computing where instead of computing trillions of possible answers to complex problems as a series of separate calculations, it appears feasible to harness the unpredictable state of sub-atomic particles, so allowing every possibility to be considered instantaneously — sand is likely to remain the common stock for manufacturing micro-chips. The third silicon revolution is photo-voltaics.

New foundations

At the same time, building new beaches and creating new land for construction by taking somebody else’s beaches is big business. In Asia, the commercial pressures to raise new land out of the sea as a home for booming economies has led to spates, disputes and legal cases about who should own and use the precious grains.

There simply isn’t enough sand to go around, leading to the concept of sand-wars. It has even been suggested that pleasant beaches as of right are becoming a luxury that local communities may not be able to afford to keep once the speculators arrive. The courts in some countries have actually intervened to hand down custodial sentences for sand smuggling!

The other great pressure on sand from construction is the demand for salt-free river-based sands for concrete production. This is a difficult asset to keep under lock and key.

Building sand castles isn’t the innocent activity it once was.

Firm foundations

Clichés such as “built on sand”, “shifting sands” and “the sands of time” are part of our lexicon that are becoming worryingly real.

The Environment Agency estimates that some 7000 properties around the English and Welsh coasts will have to be abandoned to the destruction caused by rising sea levels over the coming century, based on current funding levels.

In this period, six local authorities — Great Yarmouth, Southampton, Cornwall, North Norfolk, East Riding and Scarborough — are each expected to lose more than 200 homes. Local community groups are campaigning for compensation if they are forced out of their homes. However, the Government isn’t keen to set a precedent for paying compensation for damage related to climate change.

The Environment Agency says that £2.3 billion earmarked to be invested in the next six years will include significant spending on coastal flood and erosion risk management. As a result, some 15,000 properties will be better protected from coastal erosion.

The agency works closely with local authorities on shoreline management plans to identify erosion risk management schemes, coastal erosion monitoring and research on how best to adapt to changes. It stresses that recent flood damage calculations were part of a routine exercise.

As the decades pass, it is expected that 3453 homes and 3216 non-residential properties, including businesses, will be lost. The figure for Scotland is not included.

Small country renaissance

There is a handful of very rich but very small countries in the world that need sand and are willing to pay for it. For decades, Singapore has been invading the sea to create more land to expand its national coastline and fuel its building boom. But it has also depleted its own supply of sand.

In recent years, its massive sand shortage has been made more acute by export bans from neighbouring countries. This has driven up the price and encouraged a multi-billion-dollar smuggling trade in useable landfill. This does not sit well with Singapore’s renowned honest business practices. Ironically, Singapore is known for its ability to process silicon to make microchips and electronics.

Originally, sand dredgers only needed to travel to nearby Indonesia for sand for Singapore construction projects. But the Indonesian Government banned exports after interest groups and local communities complained about vanishing islands and ruined riverbeds. Vietnam and Malaysia have put similar curbs in place. Cambodia officials have been worried about environmental damage.

Environmentalists say that miners are being forced to search elsewhere in the region. This is encouraging illegal sand smuggling in the Philippines, Bangladesh and Burma. Further east, in the Thiruvananthapuram District of India, police have even crushed smugglers’ boats under earthmoving equipment while “sand-runners” have faced murder charges.

Such antics have not reached British shores yet, although an active black market developed for sand to fill sandbags in wartime London during the early 1940s!

Rare but common

Rare earths are quite common even though high concentrations are quite rare. Their importance is highlighted by the fact that an estimated one kilogramme is used in making a single modern hybrid automobile.

The list and its uses are long. However, common rare earth elements include zirconium, titanium, thorium and tungsten. Industrial minerals such as diamond, sapphire, garnet and gold are often found in the same so-called placer deposits of heavy mineral sands, which can be formed when eroded rock material meets low-energy coastal deltas where heavy particles fall out and are caught by sand ripples.

Eroded sands off the coast of Namibia can be rich in diamonds; the same is not necessarily true in Yorkshire. Nevertheless, one man’s waste is another’s resource in the circular economy.


More widely across the UK, damage and the violent movement of large volumes of heavy material have been seen at points all around the whole coast. Norfolk, Suffolk, the white chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters on the East Sussex coast, areas of the Gower Peninsula and the Sefton coast in Merseyside have all seen advanced erosion in the last year. Bands of pleasant salt marsh have simply vanished overnight elsewhere.

Finding cost-effective solutions for many different scenarios may well pose a new riddle of the sands.

First published by Croner-i on 9 February 2015



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