The Hidden Environmental Toll of Mining the World’s Sand

By far the largest mining endeavor globally is digging up sand, mainly for the concrete that goes into buildings. But this little-noticed and largely unregulated activity has serious costs — damaging rivers, wreaking havoc on coastal ecosystems, and even wiping away entire islands.

In Cambodia, researching land grabs in the western province of Koh Kong, I drove past three local estuaries where dredgers, organized by real estate tycoon and politician Ly Yong Phat, were extracting vast amounts of sand for land reclamation projects in faraway Singapore. Sand mining concessions in national parks and internationally recognized wetlands were killing mangroves and sea grasses that were home to Irrawaddy dolphins, green turtles, and hairy-nosed otters, one of the world’s rarest mammals.

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