sand smugglers and water thieves are making climate change worse

Sand and water might be everywhere, but the grim reality is that the sand we can use, and water needed for watering our crops and modern civilization are both being threatened.
desert landscape in shade

When we hear the news mention valuable resources, we usually think about precious and rare earth metals used in electronics, lithium used in batteries, and fossil fuels that still power quite a bit of our infrastructure. Water and sand, by contrast, rarely come to mind. But in a world in which climate change is altering cities that are largely being built of concrete and populated by people with smartphones in the pockets, and the environment around them, sand and water are actually endangered and we may soon be looking at a shortage of both without better and more responsible management. If we fail to grasp the extent of the problem, we’ll have trouble watering our crops and building our cities without a lot of costly and complicated processing.

Hold on though, isn’t sand pretty much everywhere with entire deserts covered in the stuff? And don’t cubic miles of water cover the majority of the planet’s surface? Well, yes and yes, but not every drop of water or grain of sand is equally useful to us. Nearly all the water we need is fresh water while 97.5% of the water on Earth is saltwater, which would quickly kill crops and is impossible to drink without heavy processing known as desalination. Likewise, sand created by wind rather than water can’t be used for glass and concrete, our two most popular construction materials in modern, rapidly expanding megacities, which often use sand to artificially create land and stave off rising ocean levels.

So, knowing that water and sand are being overused you’d think that we’d be taking steps to address potential shortfalls of both, but of course, with the world the way it is, we’re making things worse. Smugglers are illegally collecting and selling sand from riverbeds, leaving very real ecological disasters in their wake. Major factory farms are aggressively digging for reserves of groundwater after depleting existing wells. Both are on a quest for big, immediate profits while caring nothing for the consequences instead of even pretending they can plan in more than quarterly increments and figure out how to sustainably harness and use the water and sand to which they have access. Make no mistake, once we run out, they won’t be able to make a living no matter whether their efforts will be legal or not and we’ll feel the brunt of their misdeeds.

They want their cash now. What happens in the future is a problem for future them to figure out, and as far as they seem concerned, fuck those people. At this point, it’s almost as if they enjoy leaving a dirtier, sicker, poorer planet for both future generations and themselves, like crazed hoarders who choose to live in a decrepit house with leaking plumbing and severe pest infestations, using mason jars and buckets to relieve themselves because they’re too lazy to fix their backed up toilets. But why? Is it just money and lack of thought? Do they think the planet has infinite resources for them to use despite being a finite thing? Do they assume others will just jump into the fray to solve the problems they’ll cause?

One wonders whether they’ll just they keep going until those who abuse natural resources are legally treated the same way as pirates when European powers decided to go to war with them both in courtrooms and with their military vessels on the high seas. While we tend to think of pirates as rum-swilling outlaws thanks to their almost comical portrayal in today’s movies, they were actually slave traders and ran organized criminal networks. Likewise, these water thieves and sand smugglers aren’t just annoyances but parasites on modern civilization, happy to suck the planet dry no matter the cost to us down the line until we finally find the political will to stop them or invent ways that help us circumvent the damage they’re doing. Unfortunately, if we take our time with either, it may be too late.

# science // climate change / environment / future

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