Sand – A Vital Resource for Conserving Coastal Zones

February 10, 2022

Sand is everywhere and we hardly notice it. Yet it is also in great demand worldwide – and not just in the construction industry. It also plays an important role in the manufacturing of glass and semiconductors and in water treatment. Due to this intensive use in recent years, sand has become a scarce resource that is traded internationally. The effect of the depletion of this resource on coastal regions and the people that live there is the topic of a new research project at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (MPI). Titled “Sand – The Future of Coastal Cities in the Indian Ocean”, the project is funded by a 1.3 million euro grant from the German Research Foundation (DFG).

Sinking Cities and Endangered Ecosystems
For a number of years concerns have been growing about the large-scale extraction of sand around the world for use in construction or even to create new land where none existed. In the hunger for a scarce resource, sand is often extracted from the very places where it is most urgently needed – to protect the coasts. Cities in these areas are in constant danger of collapsing into the marshes or swamps they are often built on top of. Rising sea levels exacerbate the situation. “Coastal regions are no longer able to withstand the growing weight of buildings and infrastructure and they sink below the water”, explains Dr. Lukas Ley, Head of the Research Group “Sand – The Future of Coastal Cities in the Indian Ocean” at the MPI. “This trend is particularly alarming for metropoles like Singapore and Jakarta, which require ever-larger amounts of sand to maintain and reinforce sections of their coast.”

Sand Protects Environments and Ways of Life
At present, researchers primarily study the economic and quantitative aspects of the sand crisis. What is needed is a detailed investigation of the role of sand in the construction and protection of coastal cities. “In our project we are interested in sand as a material that makes it possible for certain social practices and ways of life to exist in the first place – it creates lifeworlds. In this sense, sand can be compared to a resource like coal. For without coal our lives would look very different. It is the same with sand”, Ley notes. The immense influence that sand has on life, society, and politics can be seen in what happens when it isn’t there anymore. In parts of Indonesia, residents no longer have the necessary resources to buy and transport the sand needed to shore up the coasts. “There people resort to using plastic waste and other scrap material to reinforce the coasts and preserve their living space”, says Ley. “This, of course, has catastrophic consequences for their health and the environment.”

Sand as a Political Element
Sand is not just a part of everyday life – it is also the basis of major infrastructures like harbours, roads, trade routes, and land reclamation projects. “This potential makes sand highly political”, says Ley. “Sand is a topic of global discourses and conflicts in which economic interests clash with social, ethical, and ecological concerns.” In some places, this has led to new alliances between environmental groups, NGOs, regional politics, and religious movements. “In Benoa Bay in Bali, for example, a grassroots movement has succeeded in stopping a land reclamation project that would have done great damage to the adjacent mangrove forests and the entire ecosystem. Local mangrove farmers and fishers are using this victory as an opportunity to reclaim coastal space.”

Fieldwork in the Cities and Coasts of the Indian Ocean
The goal of the research project is to examine the creative ways that residents of the Indian Ocean Basin region use sand and what its significance is for them. Three doctoral students will spend twelve months in port cities with a population of at least 500,000 and conduct field research. The empirical studies will provide insights into the role of coastal protection in everyday life and the ways that people’s lives are intertwined with sand. What, for example, are the repercussions of political decisions – Malaysia and Indonesia have banned the export of sand – or of economic interests – land reclamation projects lead to enormous sand extraction, but also create many jobs? “We simply do not know very much about the meaning of sand in the everyday lives of the people who inhabit the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean or what they do with this multi-purpose resource”, says Ley. “In addition to the work of the doctoral students, I will also be conducting several months of field research among mangrove farmers in Benoa Bay in order to better understand what sand means for the people there.”

Contact for this press release
Dr. Lukas Ley
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-161

PR contact
Stefan Schwendtner
Press and Public Relations
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-425

Go to Editor View